Faint from the torture inflicted on her, the terrified young woman was taunted by one of her tormentors.
“Do you think the Canadian government can do anything for you?” the man said. He called her “Maita”.
But her name wasn’t Maita. Nor was she a Canadian.
The woman was Melissa Roxas, an American citizen visiting the Philippines, the birthplace of her parents. An aspiring artist based in California, she was gathering material for a writing project when she and two companions were abducted in the town of La Paz in Tarlac, a province 120 kilometres north of Manila, on May 19.
Taken to what she believed was a military camp and accused of being a communist rebel, Roxas was repeatedly beaten, choked, and threatened with execution. At one time, plastic bags were pulled down over her face and secured around her neck until she started suffocating. She was released six days later, on May 25.
Who is Maita, and was Roxas’s abduction a case of mistaken identity? Is there a Canadian connection to this case?
Migrante International, a Philippines-based group critical of the labour-export policies of the government there, believes that the target of Roxas’s abductors may have been its former secretary general Maita Santiago, of Vancouver.
Santiago ran for Vancouver city council in 1993, on the slate of then–Coalition of Progressive Electors mayoral candidate and now NDP Vancouver East MP Libby Davies.
Santiago and her family arrived in Canada in 1977, when she was a young child. She moved back to Manila in 1999 and was Migrante’s secretary general from 2002 to 2008. She returned to Vancouver last year.
She is currently the constituency assistant of NDP Vancouver-Kensington MLA Mable Elmore.
In an a phone interview, Santiago noted that it’s common for members of the Philippines military and other state security agents to target political dissenters. “What happened to Melissa is in that same vein,” Santiago told the Georgia Straight. “It’s a very sad testament to the current state of human rights of the Filipino people now.”
In November 2006, a 32-member Canadian team travelled to the Philippines to document human-rights violations. Three members of the team—Vancouver’s Jennifer Efting of the Bus Riders Union, lawyer Luningning Alcuitas-Imperial, and former Vancouver resident and activist Cecilia Diocson—were held for 13 hours by soldiers in a town south of Manila.
In a recent follow-up report after a visit to the Philippines more than two years ago, Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, noted the continued “impunity for unlawful killings”.
“Reforms directed at institutionalizing the reduction of killings of leftist activists and others, and in ensuring command responsibility for abuses have not been implemented,” Alston stated in his April 29, 2009, report to the UN.
Santiago doesn’t like to dwell much on whether Roxas was mistaken for her. “Regardless of who they thought Melissa was, or what organization they thought she was with, human rights are nonderogable,” she said.
The Roxas-Santiago case has drawn the attention of the Vancouver-based organization Canada-Philippines Solidarity for Human Rights. Local organizer Beth Dollaga has brought up the matter to her member of Parliament, Bill Siksay of Burnaby-Douglas. She noted in an e-mail to the NDP MP that it “might become an issue in the future if the Canadian government will not do something about this.”
Dollaga also provided Siksay a copy of Migrante International’s statement, which reads in part: “We are calling on the Canadian government to not stand idly by as one of its own citizens has been evidently targeted for abduction and torture.”