“You can seal truth in a grave. But it will always break free.” Easter hammered that truth over the last 2,000 years. Before Easter 2013, did the entombed truth about journalist Jonas Burgos’ abduction start to emerge in a Court of Appeals decision?
The Armed Forces of the Philippines must account for the April 28, 2007 “enforced disappearance” of then 36-year-old Burgos, the Court of Appeals ruled. It found that 56th Infantry Battalion officers shoved a screaming Burgos into an impounded maroon Toyota Revo (plate number TAB 194) from a Quezon City mall. He has not been seen since.
Generals Hermogenes Esperon and Romeo Tolentino, plus officers Juanito Gomez, Delfin Bangit and others were “imputed with knowledge relating to Burgos’ disappearance,” the court ruled. Officers zippered their lips. The court took this as “persuasive proof of the alleged cover-up,” the Commission on Human Rights noted.
The Marcos dictatorship co-opted military leaders. Joseph Estrada shrugged when appraised of disappearances. Gloria Arroyo took military impunity to new depths. She praised Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan for “suppressing rebels.” Over 700 human rights violations were racked up by Palparan in Central Luzon. Activists called him “the butcher.”
Like Arroyo, Palparan was stopped at the airport while fleeing to Singapore. He went underground. “Palparan is being protected by some military officials and businessmen who benefited from his high-handed suppression of the communist insurgency,” says the US-based Human Rights Watch.
Military agents ducked, by alibis, demands of relatives of desaparecidos for remedy through writ of habeas corpus. To plug this loophole, Chief Justice Reynato Puno and Justice Adolfo Azcuna wrote into law two additional safeguards: the writs of amparo and habeas data. These two writs scrub mere denials on petitions on disappearances or extrajudicial executions. Backed by President Aquino’s judicial reforms, the mother of Jonas used those writs to compel the military to come clean. Edith is the widow of Jose Burgos Jr., one of the world’s “50 Press Freedom Heroes of the Century” named by the International Press Institute.
“Official impunity for crime here drives parents to wear down the stones of public squares,” Viewpoint noted (Inquirer, 5/22/07). An Inquirer photo shows Edith staring at a dumped corpse in the macabre ritual that mothers of
desaparecidos agonize through. “No, Edith says,” the article reports. It’s not the body of her third child: 36-year-old agriculturist Jonas.
The Inquirer captioned a separate photo: “The Unbearable Wait.” It depicts two gaunt women, at Pangasinan’s Labrador Public Cemetery. They stare at an exhumed coffin, sealed in blue plastic. Erlinda Cadapan and Concepcion Empeño are the mothers of two desaparecidos. They view the casket containing the remains of a female. The caption explains: “DNA testing, at Philippine General Hospital, may show if she was one of their daughters.” (It did not.)
Here, a president gives an order to put a stop to summary killings and abductions, but nothing happens. Rather, “the same thing happens again and again.” Presidents Estrada and Arroyo agreed with what Pope John Paul II told Ferdinand Marcos to his face: “Government cannot claim to serve the common good when human rights are not safeguarded.” But their administrations didn’t extend to families of
desaparecidos “even the balm of pinpointed graves.” Neither have the Filipino communists. They shrug aside similar pleas from relatives of the victims of their pogroms in the 1980s.
In a Mother’s Day gathering of desaparecido parents at Quezon City’s Good Shepherd Convent, Edith said: “I have forgiven my son’s abductors, his torturers and even their commander in chief. If we accept what has happened, and forgive the wrong done us, the dawn will come early…”
“The weak can never forgive,” Asian statesman Mahatma Gandhi once said. “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong… (Even when violence appears) to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent…”
Forgiveness, however, does not extinguish accountability. “Men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish,” Hannah Arendt, stresses in her essay on Nazi terror. That’s precisely the point of “Let the Stones Cry Out.” Published by the Protestant National Council of Churches here, this 83-page report documents 836 politically motivated killings since 2001. Most remain unsolved.
After the killing of Indonesian priest Fr. Franciskus Madhu, SVD, in Kalinga, Catholic Bishop Prudencio Andaya rued: “Perhaps, we’ve been too silent for a long time, afraid to speak out against all killings in the past that we tolerate more killings to happen!”
A culture of impunity—where traitor, abductor or torturer go free—does not emerge full-blown overnight. It builds up incrementally, stoked by official support, tolerance and silence. “A man begins to die the moment he remains silent about things that matter,” Martin Luther King warned.
We wrote earlier of “deferred hope stirring” (Inquirer, 7/17/10). The Easter 2013 Court of Appeals decision is about those hopes coming to pass—finally. Thanks to strong women like Edith, our grandchildren need not suffer the same fate their own kids did.
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