The statements of environmental activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano at a Sept. 19 press conference that they were indeed abducted caught the military and the National Task Force to End Local Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) off guard. It was an unexpected twist.
Sitting beside the commanding officer of the 70th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA), Castro said that they were abducted by soldiers, and that they were made to sign affidavits under duress inside a military camp. Tamano corroborated Castro’s revelation, saying that they did not voluntarily surrender to the authorities but were threatened to do so.
In a statement released to the media, the NTF-ELCAC said, “We felt betrayed.” The agency said that it stands by the position of the 70th IBPA, and went as far as claiming that the two “parroted the propaganda lines of the Leftist groups on the supposed abduction by security forces.”
The NTF-ELCAC’s claims are laughable. That the two environmental defenders lied about the circumstances of their abduction defies logic. How they were “hoodwinked” by Castro and Tamano is “beyond us.”
What we witnessed is the bravery of two environmental defenders in the face of outright repression. Castro took the opportunity to bring to the fore the impacts of Manila Bay rehabilitation on fisherfolk communities and how state forces wield violence to intimidate those who fight back. She might have considered the possible backlash, and still chose to proclaim and defend the truth.
Tamano and Castro’s story does not end here. As Tamano pointed out, they are not the only ones who were forcibly disappeared. Under the Marcos Jr. administration, human rights group Karapatan documented eight other victims of enforced disappearances.
That these victims, all activists, are experiencing what Castro and Tamano went through is not a remote possibility. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) must inspect military camps and safe houses to search for the missing activists.
The incident also further exposed NTF-ELCAC’s role in propagating lies to justify human rights violations such as abduction, arrests, trumped-up charges and even extrajudicial killings. NTF-ELCAC and their cohorts’ red-tagging has put so many lives in danger. In a 2021 Inquirer article , Karapatan said that at least 427 activists were red-tagged before they were killed. This agency does not deserve a P9.7-billion allocation from the proposed 2024 national budget. It does not deserve to exist.
Amid all this brouhaha, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has just come back from his Singapore trip. The commander-in-chief has not lifted a finger to stop the red-tagging and other grave human rights violations. He is busy deodorizing the bloody record of his father, the late dictator Marcos Sr., and continues to implement the counterinsurgency program of the previous administrations.
If anything, the Sept. 19 incident highlights the power of collective action. Human rights advocates and environmental defenders were quick to dispatch a team to Plaridel, Bulacan, the venue of the press conference, to demand the release of Castro and Tamano. Many organizations released statements condemning NTF-ELCAC and the military’s actions.
Castro recognized this, telling their supporters who gathered at the CHR, “We know that we have colleagues outside [the detention facility] fighting for the truth.”