724 Days Since the Enforced Disappearance of James Balao, the Search Continues

Northern Dispatch

BAGUIO CITY — How do you search for the disappeared? Where do you start? When do you stop?

When James Moy Balao did not arrive at his destination on September 17, 2008, his family and friends wanted to believe that he just missed the ride or that he stopped by somewhere for a while. But when nobody could tell or knew where he was, and his cell phone could not be reached, they were alarmed. Immediately, people were organized to look for him, missing posters with James’ photo were mounted in public places. Missing bulletins were also circulated through the mass media.

The Balao family with the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA), Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) and volunteers scoured the streets near his apartment in Barangay Fairview, Baguio City hoping to find any information that might lead them to where James was.

After seeing the poster, a witness sought the family and revealed that James was forcibly taken by five heavily armed men who introduced themselves as police officers. The witness said James was dragged into a vehicle at gunpoint around 8:00 a.m. in Tomay, La Trinidad, Benguet in front of a school adjacent to a church about a hundred meters away from the Cordillera Philippine National Police Regional headquarters. These information helped shed light on James’ disappearance.

The Balao family, CHRA and CPA then visited almost all of the AFP and PNP camps and headquarters in the Cordillera and Ilocos regions including headquarters in Metro Manila area. Officials of the camps they visited denied that they had James in their custody. Most of the soldiers received the searchers with hostility.

Aside from searching military camps, the Balao family, CHRA and CPA conducted massive information dissemination activities, mass mobilizations and protest actions. They circulated statements, action alerts and petitions.

They met with officials of the Commission of Human Rights, Congress representatives and other government officials. They filed complaints with concerned government offices. They filed a writ of amparo for James which they pursued up to the Supreme Court.

Before his disappearance, James told his friends and family that he was being followed by suspected agents of the Military Intelligence Group (MIG) of the AFP.

James was among the founding members of the CPA. He stood up against government policies and measures that have weighed down the Filipino masses into poverty and injustice. He has dedicated the best years of life for the defense and recognition of indigenous peoples rights.

CPA, a people’s organization for the defense of ancestral lands and self determination, outspoken and militant in its advocacy for indigenous peoples rights and human rights, is one among the organizations that the AFP has maliciously labeled as a front of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the New People’s Army (NPA).

Civilian organizations advancing progressive positions on social issues and genuine change are tagged by the Philippine government as fronts of the CPP-NDFP-NPA to justify making them targets in the state’s counter-insurgency program Operation Plan Bantay Laya.

This labeling legitimizes the attack against members and leaders of progressive people’s organizations resulting to a bloody record of 1, 008 extrajudicial killings and numerous other human rights violations.

James and 200 others have been victims of enforced disappearance. Among them are Jonas Burgos, Karen Empeno, Sherlyn Cadapan, Leo Velasco, Nilo Arado, and Luisa Posa Dominado.

Today is the 724th day of James’ disappearance. In all these 724 days, the Balao family, CHRA and CPA continue to exert and exhaust all efforts to find James. They have not lost hope. True to their promise, they did not leave a single stone unturned.

According to CHRA secretary general Jude Baggo, the search for James has been very painful and difficult.

“The State’s systematic efforts to hide victims of enforced disappearance are making the search difficult. They are denying us information. They have not granted our petition for a writ of amparo,” Baggo said.

“Until his last breath, Daddy Art (James father) pleaded with the new president for the release of his son. It is very painful to think that Daddy Art and Mommy Jane died without seeing James,” Baggo lamented.

Amid all the obstacles the Balao family, CHRA and CPA vow to continue the search for James and the fight for justice for all victims of enforced disappearance.”When you search for the disappeared, you do not stop until he is found.” (Bulatlat.com)

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