New York-- Approximately 100 people crowded the Bayanihan Filipino Community Center last Sunday night to welcome Edith Burgos, mother of abducted activist Jonas Burgos, and widow of the late Filipino press freedom hero Jose Burgos, at a community benefit dinner entitled Kapayapaan, A Call for Peace. Burgos was in New York to kick-off her national speaking tour in the United States, where she will also travel to Minneapolis, Washington DC, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before returning to the Philippines.
The main sponsor of the tour is GMA WATCH, a national grassroots advocacy network of Filipino and human rights organizations in the US that was spawned shortly after US Congress took note on the rate of extrajudicial killings and abductions in the Philippines last March with a US Senate hearing.
A Mother in Search of Her Son
Drawing tears from the audience, Burgos spoke candidly about her family's plight since Jonas Burgos, 36 and a agriculturalist with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), was abducted by identified elements of the Philippine military in broad daylight from a Quezon City mall on April 28, 2007. Jonas Burgos was apparently whisked away while shouting "Aktibista lang po ako!" (I'm only an activist!) and thrown into a military truck.
"You cannot imagine what goes through a mother's head, knowing that at any moment of the day, her son is being tortured," Burgos expressed to the packed, standing room audience.
Despite the unmasked men and obvious abduction, no one lifted a finger to help Jonas at the mall.
"This is the culture of impunity in the Philippines today, meaning the military can do this in broad daylight because they know there will be no consequences for their actions, and the people live in fear of them," Burgos explained.
The Church's Response
Mrs. Burgos was accompanied by Mervin Toquero, a staff member of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP). Toquero further contextualized the "human rights crisis" in the Philippines, with over 901 killings and 300 abductions, noting the ultimate command responsibility of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA).
"We believe Arroyo's drive to stay in power is the real reason there are human rights violations in the Philippines today," Toquero emphasized to an agreeable audience.
Burgos and Toquero were joined by Berna Ellorin and Jamie Mapa of the New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (NYCHRP), a founding member of GMA WATCH, and the local organizers for last Sunday's dinner.
After the panel discussion, an open forum revealed the raw sentiments of the Filipino community abroad.
"Nothing we can do here can ever make up for the loss you and your family are suffering, but we are inspired by your courage, Edith," stated Dr. Orlando Apiado of the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP), an organization of anti-Martial Law advocates founded in the 1970's, at a time when the late Senator Benigno Aquino, a staunch Marcos opponent, lived in New York.
"We may not be in the Philippines, but we are not helpless. We still have a role to play," stated Attorney Merit Salud, Advocacy Director for Region 1 of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA).
"We formed GMA WATCH precisely to lift US participation on the human rights crisis in the Philippines, on the basis that as US tax-payers, our dollars are funneled to the Philippine military as US military aid," Ellorin explained. "The GMA administration is the fourth largest recipient of US monetary aid in the world."
A Call to Step Down
Many others in the audience expressed their disgruntlement with the Arroyo administration and supported popular calls in Manila for a regime change.
"She simply needs to go. More important than knowing who will replace her is the collective mission to remove her from office. In fact, if they say GMA WATCH, I say GMA OUST," Burgos pointed out frankly.
The panel discussion was followed by a dinner that helped raise funds for Desaparacidos, an organization of families and loved ones of the disappeared in the Philippines, and GMA WATCH.
Meeting with Alston
The following Monday, NYCHRP facilitated a visit between Burgos and UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and Summary Executions Philip Alston at New York University. Burgos thoroughly updated Alston on her son's case since his high-profile 2007 report on the Philippines, implicating the Philippine military. Burgos also expressed the lack of effort by the Arroyo government, by way of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), to address her son's case.
"The CHR has arrogantly dismissed Jonas' case, when they have told the world and the United Nations that they intend to sincerely address the human rights crisis in the Philippines," stated Burgos to Alston in his office.
Burgos' report to Alston was a striking contradiction to the report of Philippine Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, who flew to New York last fall to update Alston and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the measures the Arroyo government was taking to resolve the country's human rights crisis.
After her meeting with Alston, Burgos proceeded to visit Elaine Pearson, director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch in Manhattan.
This week, Burgos will proceed to Minneapolis and then Washington DC, where she is scheduled to meet with the legislative offices of elected officials from US Congress.
Philippine Politics Human Rights