Press Release
September 29, 2008

Kiko backs amnesty international's call for safe return of missing indigenous rights activist; calls on military to be transparent

Senate Majority Leader and former student activist Kiko Pangilinan today supported Amnesty International's call for the safe return of Cordillera People's Alliance and Oclupan Clan Association member James Balao who disappeared on September 17.

The 47-year-old indigenous rights activist went missing while driving from his home in Baguio City to La Trinidad town where his family lived. He sent a text message saying he was on his way. The trip should have taken him only 30 minutes, but he never arrived. His disappearance, which was possibly related to his work on indigenous peoples' land rights, immediately alarmed his family since Balao said he was being followed since June. Surveillance had escalated to the point that he could identify "white and blue vans" tailing his every movement. Amnesty International released an online petition for the Philippine Military to immediately release Balao.

"Have we again reached a point in our history when international groups need to interfere for human rights to be acknowledged? Anong ginagawa ng military at ng kapulisan? Shouldn't they be searching for James Balao? Their lack of decisive action on his disappearance further confirms suspicions that they are involved in this crime," insisted Kiko.

The Amnesty International petition did not mince words in implicating the Philippine military. It noted that: "?the army have James Balao on a secret list of senior members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in the Ilocos and Cordillera regions, and could have been detained as part of a government security operation called Oplan Bantay Laya (Freedom Watch Operation), which categorizes staff and volunteers of some NGOs as workers for 'front organisations' supporting the CPP, its military arm, the New People's Army (NPA), or another communist organisation, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines."

News reports have pegged the number of activists and journalists killed since Arroyo assumed power in 2001 above 800. Karapatan has also reported close to 200 cases of enforced disappearances since 2001. The government has consistently denied claims of human rights groups that it is tolerating the killings. However, amid the disturbing increase in the number of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines last year, the United Nations conducted an investigation and came up with a report that essentially blamed the government, particularly the Armed Forces of the Philippines, for the killing of activists and for "systematically hunting down" journalists and leaders of organizations critical of the government and the military.

"We cannot remain silent while citizens disappear without a trace. The Court of Appeals has already ordered the military to free missing University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño who have been held against their will since 2006. Still, they have not surfaced because the military 'cannot find them in their military camps.' If we need to petition the Supreme Court to command them to open up their camps, that is what we will do. How can the military protect us from internal and external threat if Filipinos and the rest of the world consider them the biggest threat to freedom? The people deserve a military they can trust. Show us you can be trusted by subjecting yourselves to an investigation," Kiko challenged.

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