I believe that the presence of a person, whether that person is in some far away place or physically absent for whatever reason, can still be felt when there is a proper disposition of the mind and heart. Though not present in the flesh, the influence of such a person keenly felt in a current situation brings to life his presence.
Such is the presence of Sombath Somphone to me. I “met” Sombath several years ago when I was roomed in with his wife, Shui Meng Ng, in a hotel where we had a conference, an orientation of sorts on enforced disappearance and forensics. Shui Meng Ng is a gentle, highly educated Singaporean lady, a retired UNICEF worker, a devoted wife, and a staunch human rights defender. She introduced Sombath to me and I introduced Jonas to her. We had three days to share our common experiences as relatives seeking justice for their loved ones who are victims of enforced disappearance.
So I dare write to Sombath. Since he was introduced to me, his presence inevitably interfaced with my son, Jonas’ presence. And when I remember Jonas, I remember Sombath and many others who were victims of the same inhuman, evil, cruel and unending crime.
Jonas Joseph Burgos, my son, who looks just like his father, Jose G. Burgos Jr., was abducted by government agents of the Philippine Army of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Supreme Court declared this in their resolution in response to my petition for the Writ of Habeas Corpus and Amparo. This is the first common denominator between Sombath and Jonas. They were both taken by state forces.
Sombath was last seen on December 15, 2012, in front of a police station. He was forced into a vehicle by unidentified men and his vehicle was driven away by another unidentified man in the presence of police officers. Recorded in CCTV, the abduction was seen by Shui Meng herself and some relatives inside the police station. Later the CCTV tapes went missing but the video was captured in a phone of the relative. It is not illogical to presume that those who took Sombath were government agents as well.
As the date of your enforced disappearance (December 15) approaches, may I be so bold as to write to you?
I learned that you were born on February 17, 1952, in Khammouane Province, Laos, so you must be 70 now. When you were taken in Vientiane you were only 60. Jonas was abducted when he was just 37 years old. He turned 52 last March 29. Eighteen years separate you.
Both of you were taken in the heart of the city, a second common denominator. You, in a busy street in Vientiane, and Jonas in a busy restaurant in a mall in Quezon City, the largest and most populous city of the Philippines. It has been 10 years since you went missing. Jonas has been missing for 15 years.
Why did they take you and Jonas?
You founded the Participatory Development Training Center (PADeTC), an effort to help young boys and girls in the rural areas to participate in sustainable agriculture founded on an understanding of culture, tradition and values of the country. This effort brought you international fame when you were awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. Choosing to go back to your country to help in sustainable development instead of heeding the attractive lure of earning US dollars in another country, you devoted your best years to training youngsters. Having studied in the East West Center in Hawaii as a scholar it would have been easy to get a high paying job.
Jonas was known only to the farmers he worked with. Jonas too organized and taught the small group of farmers not only about organic farming but about their rights too.
Let me tell you a story. In my search for Jonas, after he was taken, I had to go to mountainous areas and small far flung villages. In one of these villages, I met mothers who said they were very grateful to Jonas because he installed a water system in their small village so that they didn’t have to carry water from the water source, a spring in the mountain, to their houses a kilometer away. The water system was so simple, crude even, constructed with bamboo, connected to each other with water flowing to their backyards, but it served its purpose to alleviate the difficulty of bringing water to their homes.
Then in another village, some farmers said they were taught by Jonas how to produce double and triple root stock fruit trees. These they sold for extra income as vegetable and rice growing were not always dependable.
The third common trait, both you and Jonas preferred to share your talents with the poor instead of using them to earn for yourselves.
Jonas chose to study agriculture so he could serve the farmers. After graduating, Jonas could have worked in big corporations because his father’s crowd was composed of agricultural scientists working in universities and corporations, but instead he opted to live as a farmer.
Both of you simply wanted to educate people to liberate them from the chains of ignorance and help the country. The government didn’t want this.
I remember Shui Meng telling me that to you, the gauge to be used to measure the progress of a nation is Gross National Happiness. How insightful. Happy citizens spell peace.
My Jonas was a happy person. He always found something to be happy about even if circumstances were difficult. I know you are quiet and refined. The smile in the pictures we see online reveal a gentle and quiet calm. Both you and Jonas choose to be happy.
If only you and Jonas met, you would have complemented each other. He could have learned so much from you and you would have seen in him the child that you were when you were young. So different yet the same.
Let me assure you, if I may, that we who are left behind try our best to continue the unfinished work left when you were suddenly taken, Shui Meng, in her guidance of PADeTC and Jonas’ family in their life with farmers.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here so nobly advanced.” (Abraham Lincoln)
We will never forget for as long as we continue our work.
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.