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Missing sisters and missing credibility

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
July 30, 2008

The daughters of slain Filipino peasant activist Eddie Gumanoy—Rose Anne, 21, and Fatima, 17—were traveling to the city of Cavite on the morning of July 3 when they believed they were being followed. They sent a text message to their mother Maria to meet them at a mall in Muntinlupa, but the two sisters never arrived. They later sent a second text message saying they had been intercepted by soldiers.

The family and members of the human rights group Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights) thus began looking for the two women. On July 4, they went to the office of the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) at Camp Aguinaldo, which denied that the military was holding Rose Anne and Fatima. They also filed a complaint with the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Camp Crame in Quezon City.

That afternoon army spokesman Col. Ernesto Torres denied that the military had abducted Rose Anne and Fatima but did admit that the two women were under the care of the army. He refused to disclose where they were, however, stating that Rose Anne and Fatima had voluntarily sought protection from the military as they were afraid of Karapatan.

By the following day—July 5—the family had learned that Rose Anne and Fatima were in the army hospital at Fort Bonifacio, and they went to see them. Their visit though was conducted in the presence of army personnel, and a female soldier, Weng Arcel, kept answering the questions that Maria asked her daughters, who wanted to know, among other things, if it was true that they had sought protection from the military. They also learned that Fatima, according to an army doctor who refused to give her name, was under observation for a urinary tract infection. The next day the same doctor told the family she had contracted German measles. Maria wanted to take Fatima to another hospital to see a doctor of her own choice, but the unnamed army doctor prevented her from removing Fatima from the military hospital.

This account is Karapatan's version of the two missing sisters whose father Eddie, a peasant leader, was killed in April 2003 with human rights activist Eden Marcellana in Mindoro Oriental. Karapatan and others hold the military in the area, under the command of Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. at the time, responsible for these two extrajudicial killings.

The account of the military for the missing daughters of Eddie Gumanoy is that Rose Anne and Fatima ran away from a Karapatan safe house. Rose Anne had arranged to meet some "soldier friends" at a Makati City mall to help her get medical care for Fatima, who had a high fever. Rose Anne had met the soldiers at an army hospital in Quezon City after her arm was severely wounded in a clash between the New People's Army (NPA) and the military on April 15 in General Nakar in Quezon Province. Rose Anne, a suspected member of the NPA, was captured in the firefight and has been charged with rebellion. Karapatan provided bail for her and arranged for her to stay in their safe houses.

At a press conference at Fort Bonifacio, Rose Anne said, "First of all, we deny the mistaken accusations and newspaper reports that we were forcibly abducted and held by the Philippine army."

"We willingly went with them [the 'soldier friends'] to Fort Bonifacio," she added, "so we could rest and get help for my sick sister. On the evening of July 3, we were taken to the Fort Bonifacio hospital where my sister is now recuperating."

Fatima did not speak at the press conference.

It is difficult to determine which account of the missing sisters is true; for although Rose Anne confirmed the military's version of what occurred to them, it must be kept in mind that the press conference was arranged by the military and was held at a military headquarters in Metro Manila. The two sisters were also still under the "protection" and influence of the army. What is clear about this incident, however, is that it raises many questions?

First of all, was Rose Anne really free to relate the facts of the case at the press conference?

Why did she feel compelled to seek the assistance of the military for her sick sister? Could she not just have contacted her family?

Would someone who was charged with rebellion, accused of being a member of the NPA and whose father was allegedly extra judicially killed by the military seek friendships with soldiers?

Why did the female soldier keep answering the questions of Rose Anne and Fatima's mother at the military hospital about her missing daughters? Was the female soldier better informed of the answers than the two sisters?

Why was Maria, the mother of Fatima, not allowed to take her daughter to another hospital to seek treatment from a doctor of her choice?

Why would Rose Anne and Fatima be afraid of Karapatan as alleged by the military spokesman Col. Torres after Karapatan had provided them with a safe house and had paid Rose Anne's bail?

These are some of the questions that initially come to mind. Most of them, of course, are directed at the military's version of the incident. Why? Because the credibility of the military and, indeed, the Arroyo administration itself is threadbare. Years of extrajudicial killings and disappearances under the Arroyo government that have primarily been laid at the door of the military by the president's own Melo Commission; the U.N. special rapporteur responsible for investigating extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston; and human rights activists inside and outside of the Philippines immediately generate questions about the integrity of government and military officials, especially in a case that initially was feared to be a disappearance of family members of a person who was extra judicially killed several years ago. In addition to the hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances since Arroyo became president in 2001 are several corruption cases in just the past year dodging the administration that do not engender faith in the veracity of anyone connected to the government. Moreover, government actions, such as trips abroad that Perry Diaz in his online column PerryScope notes cost Filipino taxpayer's 588.5 million pesos (US$12.92 million) in 2007, and government inaction, such as failing to address the needs of the country's poor who earn less than US$2 per day, which the Grameen Foundation estimates at 40 percent of the population, also do not reflect a government that cares much about the lives of its people.

Perhaps the military's account of the missing Gumanoy sisters is the correct version of events; but until people responsible for the country's extrajudicial killings and disappearances are prosecuted and imprisoned, until corruption is eradicated, until poverty is given more than rhetorical band-aids, the words and actions of those connected to the Arroyo administration will continue to be questioned. The missing sisters were found and were fortunately found alive. The missing credibility of government and military officials can be found too. It will take a different mindset and a different reaction though to the problems of the country, a mindset and reactions that indicate that those in power want to serve the interests of the people rather than their self-interests and that the lives of the Filipino people matter to them.

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis
Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong.  He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.


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