The good news is that Edita Burgos is determined to see justice done. She has been indefatigable in the pursuit of it despite the humongous obstacles that have been put in her path.
That she has gotten this far is nothing short of a miracle. First there was the Philippine National Police which scoffed at her accusations that it was involved in the abduction of her son Jonas, proposing instead that he was spirited away by his communist friends in one of their purges. Then there was the military, which continued to make its documents as inaccessible as they were in Gloria Arroyo’s time, preaching let bygones be bygones, the dead cannot be brought back to life by bedeviling the living.
Oh, but they can, by justice, said Edita. Not least literally, Jonas might still be alive. It is injustice that keeps him dead, or disappeared, or shrouded in nothingness forever. Armed with that resolve, she has succeeded in overturning the police’s version of what happened. She has succeeded in making forced disappearances a special crime deserving of special punishment. She has succeeded in getting the courts to rule the abduction as the handiwork of the military and police. She has succeeded in producing evidence implicating the intelligence section of the military in particular. She has succeeded in building a case that might well be the next best thing to a Truth Commission.
The good news is that Aquino is committed to see justice done. Last week, he ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a “focused, dedicated and exhaustive” investigation of the Jonas Burgos case. According to Leila de Lima, her boss wants the investigation done speedily without sacrificing quality. De Lima herself seems determined to carry out the task. Only a few months ago Aquino ordered her and the NBI to investigate the Atimonan massacre, and she did a good job of it. The investigation showed, as was patent from the start, that the massacre was not the product of a gun battle, as the unharmed cops manning the outpost claimed, but a plain and simple rubout.
The good news is that the military itself professes to be cooperative. “We want to have closure on this case,” says AFP chief Emmanuel Bautista.
The bad news is that it won’t be easy.
Not if the investigators are deathly serious about it. Not if the investigators are willing to go as high up as the evidence points.
Edita herself specifically points to the intelligence units of the Philippine Army’s 7th Infantry Division and 56th Infantry Battalion as responsible for the disappearance of Jonas. She says she has documents to show that they included her son in their “order of battle” as a communist guerrilla with the word “neutralized” tacked to his name. That is high up enough in itself, but we know it goes higher.
We know it goes higher because Jonas was just one of more than 700 activists who were “neutralized,” or murdered, or made to disappear during Arroyo’s time. That’s a veritable “killing fields.” It’s a testament to how deep the “culture of impunity” went, how contemptuous the wreakers of the mayhem were not just of human life but also of the capacity of the law to touch them, that they didn’t particularly care that their victim was fairly high-profile, the son of a well-known hero of the anti-Marcos struggle. Jonas has become the face of the culture of impunity, but he is not alone, “hindi ka nag-iisa,” there. That culture of impunity wasn’t just mounted by a couple of intelligence divisions of the AFP.
Jonas’ case could, and should, open up an investigation of the culture of impunity itself. Which is to say, Jonas’ case could, and should, open up, quite apart from an investigation of Arroyo, Norberto Gonzales and Jovito Palparan, an investigation of the military and police institutions themselves. About time that took place. It has never really happened here: Not after martial law, not after Arroyo’s rule. That is what makes it the easiest thing in the world for despots to conscript the military and police (the second more incorrigible than the first) to their cause, the way Marcos and Arroyo did to them. Why shouldn’t the generals turn into thugs at the drop of a hat? They’re never punished for what they do.
When I suggested the creation of a Truth Commission after Aquino won as president in 2010, I meant the kind of Truth Commission that countries like Argentina and South Africa created after a particularly vicious rule, one that conscripted the military into routinely, systematically, institutionally committing human rights abuses, a term that doesn’t quite capture the barbaric things they did to “enemies of the state.” That was what gave those countries closure. That was what enabled them to go forward. Certainly, that was what was prevented their military and police from harboring the same instincts they had under a police state.
Jonas’ case could be the next best thing to a Truth Commission for us. Of course that means solving that particular case to begin with and truly bringing closure to it for the Burgoses and for the nation. That case has as much resonance, or ought to, as the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. But it also offers the opportunity to go further, to look into the culpability of those who wreaked the slaughter of the innocents, into the culpability of those who wrought the culture of mayhem. Easiest thing for the military and police to say things are different now, they’ve undergone a sudden transformation under Aquino, they now believe in human rights and the rule of law. Easiest thing for them to say the past is past, forgive and forget, let’s move on. That is not closure. That’s just rounding up the usual suspects, the way the police normally do in heinous crimes cases, pinning down the fall guy(s), and saying:
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