Philippine Solidarity Network of Aotearoa




Contact Us


Issue Number 32, October 2009

Kapatiran Issue No. 32, October 2009

- Joe Hendren

A middle aged man stands across the street from a school in Lower Tomay, Benguet. Two men on motorcycles pass back and forth along the road in front of the school. Later, a white Mitsubishi Adventurer pulls up in front the middle aged man. Five armed men, in civilian clothes and military style haircuts get out of the car and surround him. As he is wrestled and handcuffed he shouts “ask them why they are taking me?” The man is then put in a headlock and is unable to speak. That is the last anyone has seen James Balao for a year. On September 17, 2008 James became the latest victim of an “enforced disappearance” in the Philippines. He has been missing ever since, and the State security forces of the Philippines are widely believed to be responsible for his abduction. He is at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

On October 22 and 23, 2008 I was honoured to be part of an International Solidarity Mission (ISM) to Surface James Balao, sponsored by the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Monitor, a national network of indigenous peoples’ advocate organisations in the Philippines. The delegation included 23 representatives from a wide range of human rights, indigenous rights and church groups; from a wide range of countries, including Australia, Canada, United States, India, Thailand as well as local activists from the Philippines. I was the sole New Zealander and trade unionist to take part. The Mission aimed to investigate what Philippine government institutions and concerned people's organisations are doing to find James Balao and to produce an independent assessment of these actions. As a leading researcher and educator, James Balao has been a key member of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) from its foundation in 1984. The CPA has been very active on campaigns opposing Government policies, particularly around mining and logging, opposing militarisation and organising community protests.

Indigenous Researcher & Activist

The CPA believes Balao was seen as a threat in some quarters because of the way his research has been central in CPA campaigns to expose injustices inflicted by the Government and to assert the rights of indigenous peoples to land and resources. James Balao loved working for his people and devoted all this time to the cause. The oldest of four brothers and sisters, he never married – some have fondly suggested he married the CPA instead. A few months before his disappearance James wrote an email to his family warning them he believed he was under surveillance and to be careful. He believed he was being followed by a blue and white van wherever he went.

The ISM began in the Balao family's Cranberry Bakeshop in La Trinidad, Benguet. James' three siblings, along with their father Arthur Balao, briefed the delegates on their efforts to find James, along with the two people's organisations leading the Surface James Balao campaign – the CPA and the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA). Arthur Balao said the family had not had a normal life since the abduction, with the entire family having a hard time in their efforts to locate James. He also expressed his concern for others who had been abducted. “I hope you can do something to help our country and stop these abductions and killings”.

The ISM then visited the street where Balao was abducted and met at the school across the road to hear from witnesses and to find out the impact of the abduction on the local community. Some witnesses and community members are concerned the State security forces will retaliate against them for helping the family and CPA. As James was being forced into the white Mitsubishi one of the abductors yelled to witnesses: “Don't worry, we are the Police and he is a drug pusher. Don't interfere”. A witness overheard one of the abductors say they were going to proceed straight to Camp Dangwa, the regional Philippine National Police (PNP) Command. While some in the community were initially happy the Police had arrested a drug pusher, when they later became aware as to whom Balao was, they became concerned for their own safety. Suspicion of the PNP was heightened when officers encouraged witnesses to sign statements that were not accurate. A member of the ISM asked a simple question of one of the witnesses that made it clear beyond a doubt that not even the abductors thought James was a drug pusher. “Was there a body search carried out at the time of James' arrest?” Answer: “No”.

Cops Won’t Investigate Military

The International Solidarity Mission then travelled a short distance down the road to visit Camp Dangwa in attempt to seek answers from officials in the PNP regional command. The officers gave a briefing outlining the actions taken by the PNP's Task Force Balao, there was a question as to how much independent investigation work had been carried out by the PNP, when much of the information did not seem to go much further than background and profile material earlier distributed to all PNP units by the CPA. The Commanding Officer of the PNP Regional Command took questions from members of the ISM. Questions were raised about the fear the ISM had witnessed in the community.

“General Martin admitted that the population of Lower Tomay had experienced harassment 'in some quarters' since Balao abduction, but would not define what he meant by 'certain quarters', saying only that the Task Force had been investigating this harassment. Not addressing the group's assertion that much of the community's fear is directed towards the State security forces, the General told the participants that he had ordered an increased police presence in Lower Tomay in order to calm community fears. Despite this claim the delegation had seen no officers or patrol cars in Lower Tomay during their ocular inspection” - Report of ISM to Surface James Balao.1

Martin reported the Task Force Balao is looking into four possible groups of suspects - the PNP themselves, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), personal enemies of Balao and the CPA. Some participants were surprised by the suggestion the PNP and the AFP would be natural suspects and felt this vindicated the CPA's claim the State security forces are involved in the rising number of enforced disappearances in the Philippines. Martin became aggressive and defensive when asked whether the slow pace of the investigation hindered their ability to eliminate themselves as suspects. He also gave a strange response when he was asked about the ability of the Task Force to investigate the AFP, claiming he had open channels of communication with the AFP, but he needed names of potential suspects within the military in order to begin investigating, and claimed he could not investigate the entire institution. The report of the ISM summarised our visit to the cop shop as follows: “The delegation came away from the dialogue with a sense both that the Police force was not making a real effort to investigate the abduction of James Balao, and that they were trying to cover up their own unwillingness and/or inability to investigate the AFP”.

After Camp Dangwa the ISM split into three groups. Due to unforeseen circumstances one group were not able to meet with Mayor Galwan or the La Trinidad Municipal Councillors. Another group met with Benguet Governor Nestor Fongwan, and came away questioning the Governor's sincerity in his commitment of support to the Surface James Balao campaign, particularly when he contradicted things that the group had heard earlier from Martin, despite Fongwan claiming Martin as his source. He also suggested robbery as another potential explanation for the disappearance, despite this not being mentioned in any previous briefings. My group met with members of the Baguio City Council over lunch, who gave us the most positive and sympathetic hearing of the day. A number of ideas were discussed including the possibility of a community forum on peace and justice, and declaring Baguio a “Human Rights Violation Free Zone”. In response to the later suggestion I gave the example of how New Zealand had declared itself to be nuclear free in the 1980s, at first town by town, and how this campaign had successfully raised public awareness of the issues. Both major parties in New Zealand now support the nuclear free stance, and it is regarded by most Kiwis as one of our fundamental values. So even if a “Human Rights Violation Free Zone” was largely symbolic at first, it could have practical impact over the longer term.

Military Intelligence Refuses To Meet ISM

Participants of the International Solidarity Mission then regrouped to pay a visit to Camp Allen, the regional base of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The camp houses the offices of the Military Intelligence Group (MIG) for the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). The CPA and CHRA strongly suspect this unit is responsible for the abduction of James. Despite being sent a letter by Attorney Banyang on behalf of the ISM seeking a dialogue at the same time as that sent to Camp Dangwa, there had been no response from the MIG.

Arriving at the gates the ISM was told no unauthorised persons would be admitted to the camp. A Lieutenant Castro told Attorney Bayang the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio had declared all regional camps to be on red alert due to “National Defence Week”. Attorney Bayang again requested the Commanding Officer hold a dialogue with the International Solidarity Mission, but was instead taken to speak to the Administrator of Camp Allen, the head of the 11th Community Relations Unit of the AFP, Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas Yu-ing, He claimed the AFP had never received our letter, and denied even knowing where the MIG had their offices inside Camp Allen. Attorney Bayang rejoined the rest of the ISM gathered outside the gate and reported on her meeting with the Administrator. It was clear to all this was nothing but stall and avoidance tactics from the AFP, who had also refused entry to Government officials earlier that month. On October 6 a team from the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR), along with the Balao family and representatives of the CPA, was also denied entry to the camp.

“The unwillingness of the MIG to meet with members of the family or even the State's own Commission on Human Rights makes it seem as if the unit is hiding something. The participants also believe the refusal of the MIG to meet with anyone relating to the James Balao case suggests an attitude of arrogance and a feeling of impunity which is unhealthy within the State security forces of a democratic country” - Report of the ISM. On October 6, 2008 the national office of the CHR passed a resolution strongly condemning the enforced disappearance of James Balao and requested the assistance of the AFP and the PNP in the investigation.

Commission On Human Rights No Use

The ISM met with the regional Commissioner Russell Ma-ao of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR-CAR) at its office. While Ma-ao has attended activities of the Surface James Balao campaign and staff of the CHR-CAR had begun searching AFP camps for Balao, she was unwilling to make an independent statement implicating the military in James’ enforced disappearance and suggested that any such statements would be made by the National Office of the CHR. Ma-ao was also reluctant to link the Balao case with previous extrajudicial killings of other indigenous rights activists in the Cordillera. While the PNP and the AFP were suspects the CHR were not going to draw conclusions until the investigation was finished, with Ma-ao playing the game now familiar to ISM members where unlikely “other suspects” like “Balao's clan members” were trotted out.

Commissioner Ma-ao said the Commission, as an institution of the Government, could not make a statement against the Government until it was absolutely certain that State security forces had been involved in the case. Members of the ISM questioned how the CHR-CAR could effectively function unless it was independent of the Government and prepared to speak out to defend human rights. In contrast, the National Office of the CHR had been active up to that point on the Balao case, and has continued to speak out.

I took the opportunity to ask Ma-ao about the joint project being undertaken between the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and the Philippine CHR. She confirmed that the focus of this project is on community development rather than civil and political rights. I reminded her how the project had come about – as a response to the concerns of New Zealanders about political repression and enforced disappearances that were raised during the visit of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to New Zealand in May 2007. See elsewhere in this issue for the Position Statement from several organisations (including PSNA) to the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, expressing concerns about this joint project. Ed.

At the conclusion of the ISM I was told I would sit on a panel at a press conference where the conclusions of the mission would be announced. We concluded that James was a victim of an enforced disappearance carried out by the State security forces. The ISM called on the Philippine government to abandon Oplan Bantay Laya, the “counter-insurgency policy” which has been linked to enforced disappearances throughout the country. Thankfully others did most of the talking at the press conference. A leading member of the ISM, Nicole Smith from the United Church of Canada, said: "It is (disappointing) Government seems not to be taking the case seriously. From what we have observed, there is an intention (by the State) to ignore the case," The Baguio Sun-Star and other newspapers also included a quote from me expressing concern that what happened to James could happen to any Filipino citizen given the history of enforced disappearances in the country.2 As I reflected on the day I felt this was a key message given the completely arbitrary nature of James' abduction.

Still Missing

Given the focus on James Balao as an indigenous rights activist I thought it was only fitting to invite New Zealand's own indigenous people to play a part. I sent off a quick email to my comrade Syd Keepa, the Convenor of Te Runanga o Nga Kaimahi, the representative body of Maori workers within the NZ Council of Trade Unions. I was impressed that Syd managed to contact me on my Philippine cellphone, and we worked on some words over the phone. The Runanga would like to send their aroha, their love, to the family of James. They would also like to express their solidarity with the campaign to surface James, the campaign for indigenous rights and all efforts to locate James. The message from New Zealand was appreciated by many of the other participants in the International Solidarity Mission, many of whom were indigenous to their own lands.

As the members of the ISM discussed their experiences over the two days, one of the most powerful contributions came from a small elderly Filipino nun dressed in a traditional habit. In a compelling voice that made the whole room want to listen. She found that the Mission had left her with mixed emotions. These ranged from sadness to anger, from helplessness to hope. The use of military force to silence the people showed that nobody in the Philippines was safe. Despite this, she concluded: “Our destiny is in our hands”. Well, Sister, if the hands join together, both in the Philippines and internationally, we can hope people power will give the Philippines back to its people. We can hope the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings will be brought to an end, and those responsible will be brought to justice.

On the same day as the press conference the CPA heard through a source that James was alive and was being held in a military camp.3 Yet there has been little word since, and a family have not seen their son and brother for a year. Aroha to James, we are still thinking of you and hope for your safe return to your community.

A key source in writing this article was the Report of the International Solidarity Mission to Surface James Balao. This was distributed to media and can be read online here

For an update on the Surface James Balao Campaign visit the Cordillera Peoples Alliance Website There have been a number of developments in the case since the International Solidarity Mission, along with other actions and expressions of support for the campaign both within the Philippines and internationally.

2 Baguio Sun-Star (25/10/08, “Luke-warm action on Balao case hit”).
3 Inquirer.Net (24/10/08, “Balao still alive, activists say”).#

Go to top