What you need to know
The abduction of Steve Abua, a peasant organizer, is a painfully familiar occurrence in the Philippines. What’s new is the brazenness with which his pro-government captors have carried out his disappearance.
Steve Abua, a 35-year-old activist and peasant organizer, was abducted on November 6 in the Philippines province of Pampanga while he was on his way to a meeting. With the many ordeals met by activists and dissidents in the Philippines in recent years, abductions may seem sadly commonplace. Abua’s case, however, is particularly upsetting.
Abua has been an activist since 2004, when he was a student at the University of the Philippines. His friends and comrades attest to his kind and goodhearted nature, which drew him to work with Indigenous and peasant folk after graduating with a degree in statistics.
The risks this life entailed came to fruition two weeks ago. Abua’s wife, Johanna, learned about her husband’s disappearance when she received a call from an unknown number the following day. She heard an unfamiliar voice that told her Abua was in their custody. She was told by the kidnappers not to seek outside help, and that they only meant to enlist her efforts in rehabilitating Abua.
“They wanted me to help them make Steve more cooperative with the government, to change his life because the government now is different from previous administrations and should be supported,” said Johanna Abua.
The kidnappers urged Johanna to cooperate, mentioning that Abua had not shared any information with them despite their intensive interrogation.
Johanna insisted on speaking with her husband. She was granted a video call with the kidnappers, in which they showed her Abua, sitting on a bed, blindfolded, bound, and gagged. A man removed the blindfold to reveal it was indeed her husband. The entire video exchange lasted 15 seconds.
Afterwards, the hostage takers teased Johanna with the possibility of being allowed to see Abua on the condition that they both pledge to give up criticizing the government. Abua’s wife received more messages from the caller until November 8. The kidnappers were furious upon learning that an alert message was posted on Facebook by activist groups about the abduction. No message has been received since that day.
Johanna is distressed both by the loss of contact with her husband and with the idea of reestablishing contact with her husband’s captors. “I thought to myself, ‘Why do I have to cooperate with these kidnappers and play their games? My husband hasn’t done anything wrong!”
She along with Abua’s comrades from the peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, known as KMP (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), has tried tracing his whereabouts. Abua was last seen near a 7-11 in Santa Cruz, a town in Pampanga, a few hours drive north of Manila. They spoke with local officials there who alleged that on the day of the abduction, two military intelligence officers visited them and asked about Abua.
The authorities deny any involvement with Abua’s case as both the army and police chiefs of the Central Luzon region claim there was no record of any accosting of Abua.
The ordeal of the Abua family is a familiar yet painfully more-harrowing-than-usual experience during a period of an unbridled state-backed terror campaign in the country.
The Philippines has a troubling history with activist disappearances. Colloquially, activists who are taken and never seen again are referred to as desaparecidos, a Spanish word meaning “the disappeared.” All throughout the country’s modern history, those who have met this fate are typically engaged in grassroots organizing and political dissent.
It’s hard to say which is worse, having no interactions with the captors of a loved one, or being taunted as Johanna was with a flickering hope of seeing a loved one again. But Johanna remains resilient. She plans to make the search for Abua a national campaign, calling out the authorities who seem committed to keeping mum on the subject.
In a statement on the matter, the Pampanga Provincial Police office shared that they met with Abua’s wife when she came to them asking for assistance. The police asked her to come back with more evidence that she was indeed the spouse of the missing person.
According to a national human rights group, under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, there have been 18 enforced disappearances as of August 2021. 14 of the victims have been peasant organizers. Meanwhile, there have also been 1,138 cases of illegal arrest and detention in the same period.
Karapatan Secretary-General Cristina Palabay viewed the trend of crackdowns as a by-product of the state’s counter-insurgency methods, blurring the lines between armed rebels and legal activists. In the eyes of Duterte’s regime, grassroots organizers are targets to be liquidated with the use of clandestine and off-the-books tactics. She told The News Lens, “The abduction of Steve Abua is a grim reminder that the Duterte regime’s bloody war on dissent is dirtier now more than ever that they are willing to resort to these shameless and cowardly criminal acts.”
Danilo Ramos, Chairperson of KMP said, “We are appealing to any witnesses to give any information that could lead to the whereabouts of Steve Abua. It is likely that Abua was abducted to force him to surrender and cooperate with government agents. Surface Steve Abua!”
What makes Abua’s case even more difficult to fathom is the brazenness with which his captors have been able to declare their intentions. They want to give Abua a “new life” feigning supposed good intentions with fanatically violent methods.
In the past, there was more of an effort from the state or those aligned with the establishment to mask abductions like Abua’s in secrecy. This gave the victim’s families less evidence to work with. The unabashed conduct with which the kidnappers have carried out the crime projects a sense from them that they can get away with it. For Abua’s sake and many others, we hope they won’t.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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