Where is Jonas Burgos?

By Anna Almendrala 4-08-2008

Imagine you're eating at a shopping mall food court when you suddenly hear shouting and see a group of uniformed men (neither police nor army) drag a young man from his lunch a few tables away. "I'm just an activist! I haven't done anything wrong!" he shouts as they cuff him and take him to a waiting van outside. What would Christ-followers do? What would you do?

This is the scene that plays in Edita Tronqued Burgos' mind over and over again as she worries about her missing son. On April 28, 2007, Jonas Burgos was eating lunch in a crowded mall in downtown Manila, Philippines, when four to eight unidentified men abducted him. During her presentation at Ecumenical Advocacy Days a few weeks ago, she mused that if the people in that crowded mall had done "the Christian thing," maybe her son wouldn't have disappeared into the ether that weekend.

After one or two strange, groggy phone conversations with his family, all trace of Jonas Burgos disappeared for good. Now Jonas' family tries to act on every lead that comes in, and investigate every rumor and sighting. Edita once traveled hours after receiving word of a bound, heavily tortured corpse found in the countryside. It wasn't him.

Why was Jonas abducted and disappeared like this? What had Jonas done to merit such brutality? The son of activist-journalists persecuted under the Marcos dictatorship, Jonas had gotten a degree in agriculture, then moved to the provinces to teach organic farming techniques to the peasants. Soon after he arrived, he became distraught at how impoverished the farmers were, in part because of the Philippines' economic policies (aimed at hyper-development through corporate foreign investment). He became a volunteer for a farmers' rights organization called Alyansa ng Magsasaka sa Bulacan (Alliance of Farmers at Bulacan). But in the Philippines, advocacy and activism on behalf of poor farmers can draw the ire of the military, which branded Alyansa an "enemy of the state."

Jonas' disappearance is just one of hundreds of cases in which activists, journalists, and artists in the Philippines are kidnapped, tortured, or murdered by unidentified men in uniform. Their deaths are often unrecorded or unverifiable for lack of a body, and the police seldom investigate. This is called an "extrajudicial killing," an execution committed beyond the boundaries of the legal process.

In Jonas' case, as it became clearer that the military was about to be implicated in his disappearance, the Philippines Armed Forces launched a smear campaign claiming that Jonas was a member of the Communist Army of the People of the Philippines. They asserted that Jonas had been caught embezzling money, and the "communist terrorists" killed him to punish him for stealing. This statement released by the national military was a shocking, hurtful lie, as was obvious to anyone who even remotely knew Burgos.

Edita Tronqued Burgos ended her presentation by emphasizing that no one should be beyond the protection of the law. Even if he had been guilty of a crime (rather than of economic advocacy), that would not justify kidnapping and disappearance. In typically outspoken Filipino style, Edita pleaded, "even a child molester caught in the act gets his day in court to defend himself. Why shouldn't my son deserve the same right?"

Anna Almendrala is the marketing and circulation assistant for Sojourners.

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