Five Years After My Abduction and Torture, Still No Justice
An open letter to President Obama on the crimes of The Philippines government
Dear President Obama,
I write to you, Mr. President Obama, on the five-year anniversary of my abduction and torture by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. On May 19, 2009, while conducting health care work in the community of La Paz, Tarlac, Philippines, I was abducted by elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
As a U.S. citizen, your recent trip to the Philippines deeply disturbed me, because while there are still no genuine steps being taken to address past and present human rights violations in the Philippines, your actions did nothing to help. In fact, the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the U.S. and the Philippines made the situation in the Philippines worse. EDCA is an unequal agreement in favor of the U.S. and in violation of the sovereignty of the Philippines. Agreements like this, and the possible signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, embolden the already corrupt B.S. Aquino administration and worsen the human rights situation in the country.
Five years ago, I disappeared from those I love: the communities I dedicated my life to serve, my family, my friends, and my colleagues. I was held in secret detention and tortured for six days inside the military camp of Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, residence of the 7th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.
I was suffocated with plastic bags, my head was repeatedly banged against the concrete wall, and for six days I suffered other severe forms of torture that caused lasting physical injuries. Every time I see the scars on my body, it reminds me of the torture I endured.
After I was surfaced, I requested the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Essentially the U.S. Embassy told me I was on my own. I later found out that the U.S. Embassy’s portrayal of their correspondence with me after I was surfaced was inaccurate, as revealed by the three Wikileaks cables that came out in 2011. The Chief of the American Citizens Service of the Embassy misreported that I was “in good physical condition.” In fact, I had sustained physical injuries and suffered psychological trauma after the incident. The Embassy also initially offered three options for me to provide more information about my case. But when I took the option of having a representative come to my relative’s home because I felt unsafe to leave the house, they withdrew that option. There was a lack of meaningful assistance given to me, and the U.S. Embassy abandoned their responsibility to me as a U.S. citizen.
Five years later, there is still no justice in my case nor the countless others, like Jonas Burgos, Sherlyn Cadapan, and Karen Empeno, who were all forcibly disappeared under the presidency of Arroyo. No one has been prosecuted for these human rights abuses. The Armed Forces of the Philippines—the very military that was involved in my abduction and torture and the torture of others—continues to receive funding and training from the U.S. government. As a U.S. citizen, I don’t want my taxpayer dollars going towards funding the Philippine military that continues to commit heinous crimes against humanity.
Under President B.S. Aquino III’s administration, human rights violations continue with impunity. Massive human rights violations are part of the counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan and have caused displacement of peasants and indigenous peoples.
According to the human rights organization, Karapatan, in the last four years, there were 192 cases of extrajudicial killings; the majority of them were farmers, indigenous and environmental rights defenders. They also reported there are 489 political prisoners—a majority of whom were abducted and detained on fabricated charges. Nearly 40,000 people have been internally displaced, and 134,110 individuals affected due to the illegal use of schools, homes, hospitals and places of worship for military purposes.
Through war, the U.S. acquired the Philippines as a colony and occupied it for the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, the United States has enjoyed an unequal relationship with the Philippines—using the country as its colonial and now neo-colonial outpost to advance U.S. hegemony in the Asia Pacific region. Despite rhetoric about “cooperation,” “friendship” and “partnership,” the U.S. has shown no interest in genuinely addressing the problems of the Philippines and instead advances the economic and political interests of the elite of the United States and the rich few in the Philippines who benefit from the inequities.
Often, as the leaders of nation-states like the Philippines and United States determine the fate of their people, they do so in disregard to the everyday struggles of workers, peasants, the various indigenous groups, women, youth and students in the Philippines. Within these communities, massive human rights violations are committed and compounded with increased militarization.
One such area is near Davao, Mindanao, where the peace-loving, indigenous Talaingod Monobos were uprooted from their lands by an overzealous military trying to push them from their ancestral lands to make way for illegal mining and logging operations.
This past April 2, 2014, over three hundred Talaingod Manobo families had to flee their homes because of military bombings and occupation of their villages. Some families were forced to starve because they were prevented from going to their farms by the military. A twelve-day old boy died during the evacuation. His mother cried in silence as they escaped the military. The boy’s father buried him by digging a shallow grave with his bare hands and a bolo. A newborn baby was not given the chance to live and his family was driven away from their home.
The brutality of the Philippine military knows no bounds—they intentionally damaged the corn and rice mill that the Manobos rely on for food and their livelihood. In a household in another village, a soldier excreted feces into their cooking pot meant for rice and boiling water.
The Manobo tribes have suffered a long history of human rights violations perpetrated by the military—including harassment, destruction of farms and killings. Stationing U.S. troops and equipment permanently in the Philippines under the new EDCA will further exacerbate the militarization of communities like the Manobos. There should be a permanent withdrawal of the Philippine military from their areas and a stop to U.S.-designed and funded Oplan Bayanihan. These atrocities have to stop.
The U.S. cannot conscionably and legally continue to provide training and equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines knowing they commit crimes against humanity. Providing U.S. military aid to the Philippines is in violation of existing U.S. laws. The Arms Export Control Act, the Leahy Law and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 state that no funding should be provided to foreign security forces where the United States has knowledge that they have committed “gross violations of human rights.”
You said in your first presidential victory speech on November 7, 2012 that “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
People all over the world want the same things that we want here in the U.S. They want the same things that you want as a man, as a father, as a leader of a nation—to live in a world of freedom and peace. They cling to that hope that one day they will achieve it, and they are willing to do what they can to keep fighting for it.
You cannot achieve freedom and peace through war or occupation of other lands like the Philippines. You cannot pretend that agreements like EDCA do not violate the sovereignty of the Filipino people. You cannot turn a blind eye on the extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture still happening in the Philippines. By entering into agreements with the Philippine government and continuing to fund the Armed Forces of the Philippines, you are in effect giving your seal of approval for the B.S. Aquino administration to continue its corruption and deceit, and to continue to commit human rights abuses.
What should be said about the United States, which supports governments like the Philippines that are corrupt and which silences dissent through extrajudicial killings, abductions, and torture? Are you willing to sacrifice the sovereignty and well-being of the Filipino people as well as the well-being of the majority of the American people, for the sake of profit and power for the elite few of the United States? Are you willing to continue draining away billions of dollars from education, housing, healthcare and sustainable energy for poor and struggling American families in order to continue enriching the giant military corporations?
Like you, I continue with a stubborn hope that things will change and that something better awaits us. That is why I write this letter to you. Five years later and there is still no justice for my case. As President of the United States, I hope that you will push for the genuine investigation into my abduction and torture and demand that the Philippines punish the perpetrators.
I also demand that our taxpayer dollars are not used to fund the Philippine military which continues to commit human rights violations. I demand that the U.S. withdraw our troops from the Philippines and terminate unequal agreements like EDCA.
I hope that one day there will be a world without torture, a world with a just and lasting peace. But unlike you Mr. President, I don’t want to side with oppressive governments like the administration of B.S. Aquino in the Philippines. I want to be on the side of history that aligns itself with the basic masses of the people who continue to fight to overcome oppression and exploitation. I want to be on the side of history that believes in the right of all people to live with genuine freedom and democracy.
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