Martial Law

[OPINION] Jhed and Jonila: 51 years after Martial Law, enforced disappearances persist

Tony La Viña, Bernardine de Belen

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[OPINION] Jhed and Jonila: 51 years after Martial Law, enforced disappearances persist

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'We owe it to Jonila and Jhed who bravely stood up against their oppressors while sitting beside them at a press conference'

On the cusp of the anniversary of the declaration of Marcos Sr.’s martial law, two environmental activists who went missing on September 2, 2023, were surfaced. Only one year under Marcos Jr.’s administration and there has already been at least 15 cases of abduction. Unironically, Marcos Jr.’s father holds the highest record of abductions and enforced disappearances as Philippine president.

Human rights and environmental groups have suspected early on that Jhed Tamano, 22, and Jonila Castro, 21, were forcibly disappeared in Orion, Bataan. This speculation led to a fact-finding mission showing that Castro was red-tagged months before, a clear motivation for their abduction. An unidentified soldier has also visited her family, coercing them to convince Castro to meet with him. Additionally, eyewitnesses reported that the two were violently shoved into a vehicle by armed men the day they disappeared.

On the 51st anniversary of Marcos Sr.’s declaration of martial law, is it not infuriating and terrifying that activists and organizers are still violently silenced? Adding fuel to the fire, NTF-ELCAC held a press conference with Castro and Tamano to show that they are safe. Jhed and Jonila were expected to deny their abduction and to admit to surrendering to the military, supporting the signed military affidavits. Instead, the two environmental activists bravely confirmed, in the presence of the NTF-ELCAC, that they were in fact abducted by the military. Jhed Tamano says in the presscon that they were forced to go with the narrative of the military as their lives were threatened. Jonila Castro affirmed Tamano’s statement.

Why were they abducted?

Through the presscon, everyone is able to confirm that their case is of enforced disappearance. But why were they forcibly disappeared in the first place? 

Tamano and Castro are both community organizers helping the communities in Manila Bay fight reclamation projects. While Castro’s a community organizer and a volunteer from Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing, and Environment in Manila Bay (AKAP KA Manila Bay), Tamano is program director of  the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum.

Some of these Manila Bay reclamation projects are the New Manila International Airport, Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway, and the Northern Access Link Expressway. Before their disappearance, Tamano and Castro volunteered to do research on the consecutive flooding and income decline of coastal communities in the area. 

Despite Marcos Jr.’s suspension of reclamation activities in Manila Bay, PAMALAKAYA said that dredging has continued in Cavite. Additionally, despite suspensions, the past activities have already negatively affected fisherfolks’ livelihood in the area.

According to Castro herself in the conference, “May nagyayaring reclamation projects doon [Manila Bay]. Ang problema doon, ‘yung mga mangingisdang mawawalan ng hanapbuhay.

Scientists and environmentalists have added that these projects will destroy the environment. These projects have been found to be destroying fish waters and threatening the ecosystem including mangrove forests.

Support for Jonila and Jhed

Many groups have shown their support to Jonila and Jhed by holding mobilizations to demand that they be surfaced, by offering legal support to the families while they searched for their children, by protecting these brave young people after the presscon, and by issuing statements condemning their abduction.

The Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED) initiated a statement asking other organizations and individuals to co-sign to call for the release of the two activists. There are 36 international organizations, 31 Filipino organizations, and 155 individuals who signed this petition. While Jhed and Jonila have finally been released, the statement also includes some recommendations such as:

  • An independent investigation from the Commission on Human Rights
  • Cease intimidation of the state forces against the family of Jonila Castro and rights groups helping them
  • An independent investigation from the Committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate

With these facts at hand, it is not only undeniable that they were victims of enforced disappearance. It is also undeniable that the enforced disappearances of activists and organizers are not isolated cases, but a pattern. For a decade now, the Philippines remains the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders according to a Global Witness’ report. Defenders in our country are constantly threatened, red-tagged, abducted, and murdered for being in solidarity with marginalized and exploited communities. 

From Marcos Sr. to Marcos Jr., the number of the Filipino desaparecidos has only grown as an attempt to repress those who are fighting back. Fifty-one years after the declaration of martial law yet we are still facing the same problems, the youth then and the youth now continue to suffer the consequences because nothing is changing, or if there is, not enough. We must hold those who are responsible for this violence accountable. 

We owe it to Jonila and Jhed who bravely stood up against their oppressors while sitting beside them at a press conference. We also owe it to them for their dedication – even before their disappearance – to the marginalized communities in Manila Bay.

In a statement issued by Cristina Palabay, the Secretary General of Karapatan, she says that everyone involved in the abduction and the fake surrender of the two activists must be held accountable, especially the NTF-ELCAC. In the same vein, NTF-ELCAC Chairperson, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.,  co-vice chairpersons Vice President Sara Duterte and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, must not be exempted. With this case as well as others of red-tagging and intimidation from the NTF-ELCAC, Palabay also emphasizes the need for the abolition and defunding of the task force.

BAYAN president Renato Reyes also pushed for an impartial investigation on the abduction and cover up of the military. He repeats Palabay’s call to abolish the NTF-ELCAC as well. In a thought process not far from ours, he says, “Why the deafening silence when it comes to human rights? Is it 1972 all over again?

Pope Francis and protecting young activists

Our team, Klima Center of the Manila Observatory, a Catholic, scientific, and research institution, also issued a statement condemning the abduction of Jonila and Jhed. As a scientific institution that recognizes the importance of our environmental defenders, we firmly stand with the two young activists and all the youth who endlessly work towards a brighter, cleaner future. We support environmental activists who carry the brunt of climate justice work. As Pope Francis puts it in Laudato Si’, “Particular appreciations is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change.

What is so wrong with the youth doing their part to care for our common home? Does that make them communists?

The Commission on Public Affairs of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippine should reconsider its membership in the NTF-ELCAC. We have personally listened to the testimonies of Jonila and Jhed (who happens to be a church worker) and we are sure they are telling the truth. 

Will the Commission and by extension the CBCP be a party to falsehoods and to harming young people who is standing up for all of us?

Is it 1972 all over again?

With a gap of 51 years, should we not be better off now? Instead, we are under an administration led by the dictator’s son. We are not only suffering the highest prices of basic necessities, or the destruction of our environment with expensive reclamation projects, we are also suffering endless human rights violations with no response from the government. Activists experience red-tagging and death threats like it is part of their daily routine. Something must change, or else, we will be here after another 50 years saying, Why are we still suffering like we were decades before?

Officials who are behind these environmental activists’ abduction must be made accountable. The government must stop weaponizing state forces to harass its citizens. 

Stop the attacks against environmental human rights defenders! Surface all desaparecidos! No to Martial Law all over again! –

Tony La Viña teaches constitutional law at the University of the Philippines and several Mindanao law schools. He is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

Bernardine de Belen graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University with a Creative Writing degree. She works at the Manila Observatory as a research assistant.

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  1. ET

    An appreciation to writers Tony La Viña and Bernadine De Belen for pointing out the persistence of enforced disappearances even though 51 years have passed since the declaration of Martial Law by Marcos Sr. Secondly, it is very interesting to know if the Commission on Public Affairs of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines will reconsider its membership in the NTF-ELCAC. Thirdly, it is doubtful that there will be “independent” investigations which will be conducted by the Commission on Human Rights, the House of Representatives and the Senate. If there will be, such investigation(s) will only be for show. Fourth and lastly, as for the intimidation from State Forces, it is expected to continue and may even worsen.

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