President Aquino sent mixed signals to victims of human rights violations in promoting Army colonel Eduardo Año to brigadier general and appointing him head of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (Isafp). Año, along with 45 other military officials, is facing charges in connection with the 2007 abduction of activist Jonas Burgos. The case is still undergoing preliminary investigation at the Department of Justice after more than a year, and Burgos remains missing.
Especially for Edita Burgos, mother of Jonas and widow of the late free press champion Jose Burgos Jr., the promotion and appointment of Año are a double blow that aggravates the bad treatment she has been getting from an administration that came to power on the promise of transparency and promotion of human rights. When Mr. Aquino became President in 2010, Edita Burgos hoped that the government would at least compel the military to come clean on her son’s fate given the overwhelming evidence that the Army’s 56th Infantry Battalion was involved in his disappearance. But she seems to have waited in vain.
In June 2011, frustrated but still carrying on her lonely cause, she filed criminal charges of arbitrary detention and possibly murder against the soldiers and officers suspected of involvement in her son’s abduction and those who allegedly covered up the crime. Aside from Año, head of the Army’s intelligence service at that time, the other respondents are Maj. Harry Baliaga Jr., identified by witnesses as among those who abducted Jonas; Lt. Col. Melquiades Feliciano, former commander of the 56th Infantry Battalion; and several John and Jane Does.
The latest development appears to be another blow to Edita Burgos’ crusade, and also casts doubt on the sincerity of Mr. Aquino to strengthen the human rights plank of his administration. Especially since the DOJ has yet to complete the preliminary investigation of a case that took years to be filed, the charges brought against the military brass belie the human rights rhetoric of the President and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima (incidentally the immediate former chair of the Commission on Human Rights).
The administration’s human rights record has been quite mixed, even embarrassing. It’s sad that Año’s promotion should be announced quite close to the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, and when it has been revealed that the President’s Liberal Party may be drafting as local candidates in 2013 some members of the Ampatuan clan that is suspected to be behind the massacre.
In addition, Año’s appointment as Isafp chief comes at a time when the Nobel Peace Prize is set to be announced and an unprecedented number of Nobel Laureates—134—have signed a petition calling on the incoming Chinese leadership to release dissident and 2010 Nobel Peace winner Liu Xiaobo. It’s not too late to remember that the Philippines went along with the Chinese boycott of the awarding ceremony in Oslo in early 2011, refusing to send even a low-level consul to represent the country. The gesture severely tainted the Philippines’ international reputation as a promoter of human rights.
With the poor handling of sensitive human rights issues, the administration goes into the new year with squandered opportunities in checking state terror and protecting civil rights. “I fear that the message relayed by [Año’s] promotion is a justification and a signal for human rights violators to continue their abuses,” Edita Burgos said. It does not help that government and military spokespersons have generally labelled criticism of Año’s appointment as leftist rant. “With Malacañang’s tough branding of human rights violations as leftist propaganda, are the authorities now saying that I will never see my son again?” the mother said.
Edita Burgos was compelled to file the case after four fruitless years of appealing to the military. The evidence against the Army appears incontrovertible. The license plate of the vehicle used in Jonas’ abduction had been traced to the 56th IB. “We have done everything,” she had said in filing the case. “This is the last bastion. If nothing happens to this, [then] the whole justice system is not working at all. If they will continue to cover up [the crime], then there is no hope for the Philippines.”
After Año’s promotion and appointment, the despair of Edita Burgos—and other victims of human rights violations—becomes even more plain and poignant.