Philippine kidnapping case has Vancouver link

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      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.”


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      erie maestro

      Aug 13, 2009 at 7:40pm

      This incident should be one more proof that the Philippines under Pres Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is NOT a democracy, that it holds its own people hostage by violating the people's human rights and civil and political liberties. The Canadian government must review its aid, whether military or development aid, to the Philippine government. If the Arroyo government thinks that it can stop Canadians (and others) from going to the Philippines in solidarity missions, medical missions, fact-finding missions, it underestimates the strength of internationalism and people-to-people solidarity.


      Aug 14, 2009 at 9:31am

      Whether you are in support or in rebuke of the Philippines current president, now is the time to for us and our fellow kababayans to make a choice. As did Americans chose to elect a new vision with Obama, next year is the Philippine presidential elections and we have the liberty to elect another leader. We all want the Philippines to progress, so lets move on and focus on the bigger picture. The charges of torture will eventually find its place and the appropriate people will eventually be brought out. Stopping medical missions and other forms of aid would just hurt the ordinary Filipinos that are in need. If we all cannot stand behind the Philippine president, at least lets stand by our country, and not make perfect the enemy of good.

      Leonora Angeles

      Aug 27, 2009 at 4:33pm

      The mistaken identity angle in the Melissa Roxas-Maita Santiago case is interesting for two reasons: (1) it shows that military intelligence agents and interrogator-torturers make mistakes, mistakes that can have dire consequences for human rights; (2) Filipinos living and working abroad who continue to fight for social justice and human rights in the homeland are not spared from the tentacles of the state's repressive machine. The "bigger picture" Pablo wants us to focus on includes not just a change in government but also ensuring that past regimes -- from Marcos to Arroyo -- are held accountable for their human rights records. I do not think that Erie's message above is asking for a stop in any form of localized, people-to-people aid, particularly medical missions, while advocating for a review of Canadian bilateral aid policy to the Philippines. In fact, she is saying that incidents like the Roxas-Santiago case and other forms of government harrassment would not and should not stop diaspora aid and philanthropy to Filipinos in need. Filipino-Canadians who invest their time, energy and resources in their adopted country, Canada, as well as in the Philippines, realize the strong transnational ties between the two countries. Regime change happens primarily through internal political an social struggles in the country, but can be assisted through external pressures. However, the question of how effective and how compliant have aid-giving countries been in pressuring countries with poor human rights record to make them change, still remains a matter of debate.