Kin, colleagues mark birthday of missing activist

“Manong! Be strong as always! We share your hardships, feel your pain, we miss you so much and we will not stop searching for you! May you have a Happy Birthday!”


MANILA – It has been four years and seven months since James Balao, an Igorot activist, was abducted by suspected state agents in La Trinidad, Benguet.

Today, on his 52nd birthday, his siblings and colleagues from the Cordillera People’s Alliance, families of other victims of enforced disappearances and other groups made origami paper cranes and sent him their greetings.

In the last 1,677 days that passed, James’s loved ones went to military camps, police stations, hospitals and every possible place to find him. They sought the help of the courts, and still, James remains missing.

Slow progress

The CPA and the family filed a petition for writ of amparo in September 2008.

After four months, in January 2009, the Regional Trial Court Branch 63 granted the petition for writ of amparo filed by CPA and the family and ordered the respondents then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her military officials to surface James.

In its 13-page decision, the RTC said James Balao disappeared because of his “activist/political leanings.” The said decision also noted the state policy, Operation Plan Bantay Laya tagging members and leaders of progressive people’s organizations as enemies of the state, which validates the claims of CPA that James was taken by state agents.

The court, however, did not issue an inspection order that should have helped in finding James.

The respondents appealed the case to the Supreme Court. In a ruling dated December 13, 2011, the high court reversed the granting of the amparo petition, remanded the case to the RTC, and ordered the military and police officials to continue their investigations and submit reports the SC.

The SC also dropped Arroyo as one of the respondents, citing presidential immunity.

In a statement, the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance (CHRA) said the Philippine National Police’s Task Force Balao “has not provided helpful and concrete results.”

The human rights group revealed that what the police presented as updates in the case were mere computerized cartographic sketches of the abductors. The sketches were results of the independent investigation by the CPA and CHRA and not by the police.

“The Balao family and the CHRA have been deeply disappointed with the continuing lack of sincere effort on the part of the PNP to locate James,” the CHRA said. “Each day that passes without him being found is proof to the continuing impunity in the country.”

Painful search

In an email interview with, James’s younger brother Winston shared the agony of the seemingly never-ending search.

Winston joined the search in military camps. “Military personnel were not friendly and were arrogant. Some would not let us in even if we are accompanied by CHR [Commission on Human Rights] officers who are supposed to have the authority to enter military camps and offices,” Winston related.

In one of the camps, at the Camp Allen, Winston said, the soldiers were even covering their faces. “It is infuriating. Probably James is there because they barred us from entering the camp. If they are not hiding anything, why would they not let us in to see for ourselves?”

Both their parents died without seeing James. “I miss my brother so much, we lost both parents and need each other to move on, but he is not here. We could hardly move on because we are still searching for him,” he said.

Winston described his older brother James as a silent person but always thoughtful. “He always finds the time and the way to help us, his siblings.”

“Whenever there is an occasion and there are plenty of good food, we miss his high-pitched voice exclaiming, ‘wow so delicious!’ then admonishing us to eat slowly,” Winston said.

Winston hopes this message could reach James: “Manong! Be strong as always! We share your hardships, feel your pain, we miss you so much and we will not stop searching for you! May you have a Happy Birthday!”

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