What’s common in C-130 plane crash, Sulpicio Lines’ sinking & the “MOA-ancestral domain” controversy

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The Philippine Air Force (PAF) symbolic coffins of people presumed dead in a C-130 cargo plane crash bring a message. Barely a week has passed that the 9 military personnel went missing. Many think it’s too soon to dismiss them as dead, much more mourn with a posthumous memorial when no exhaustive search for their bodies have been done.

The flag-draped tribute for the brave soldiers was emotionally-moving. (Photo Credit: Philstar) The same day as the Philippine Navy (PN) announced having found the site of crash, the glum spectacle of honoring those who “perished,” went on. Nobody reported having retrieved a body. No one knows from whom the pieces of human flesh found in the crash site belong to. Only a lonely badge of “Armadong Kusog ng Pilipinas,” ID cards, and an assortment of personal effects stand as evidence of death, convincing high-ranking military officers to “close” the grim case.

Declaring a quick closure on missing persons has become too common in the Philippines. When Abu Sabaya was allegedly swallowed by the sea during a bloody confrontation with the military, a pair of sun-glasses was all that was needed to tell the world, the notorious Abu Sayyaf hostage-killer of Christian missionary Martin Burnham with a hefty cash bounty on his head, was dead. Fabled money was exchanged swiftly as the news rolled in, confusing the public with embarrassing inconsistencies in government statements and media reporting.

Many passengers of the Princess of the Stars were presumed to have passed on almost immediately when the ferry ship was found grounded near Sibuyan Islands. Similarly, the Dona Paz collision with tanker Vector brought fast presumption of deaths, including those not included in the ship manifest.

It seems the military authorities rushed beyond their call of duty by presuming these people were all dead. Military bravery and “efficient” swiftness were perhaps what they wanted to project. But they ignored the medico-legal ramifications of declaring a missing person dead—-something reminiscent of the gaffe behind the bungled memorandum of agreement-ancestral domain (MOA-AD,) tossed to the Supreme Court when Philippine peace negotiators (military men involved) didn’t do enough to ascertain the applicability and legality of giving away territorial concessions to the MILF.

The distribution of cash awards to relatives of unverified dead victims of Sulpicio Lines (Princess of the Stars.) was another thing. Without waiting if the “dead” people involved were truly among the passengers in the boat which sank at the height of Typhoon Frank, there were offers to silence the victims’ relatives with cash. For sometime now, the uproar raised by the mishap had died down quickly as the lawsuits that followed.

Certainly, there are laws governing the declaration of death of a missing person. They have serious practical applications which cover diverse issues such as settling of a decedent’s estate, the awarding of inheritance, indemnity claims, insurance benefits, the exercise of a citizen’s rights to vote, accountability for a crime or contracting marriage.

Let us take contracting marriage as an example. To the best of my knowledge the Philippine Family Code stipulates in Article 41 a 4-year wait before a missing person to be declared dead for the purpose of re-marriage. The waiting time is shortened to two years for a spouse, if the missing person presumably passed on in a sea voyage—- like the sinking of the Sulpicio Lines ferry or in a the falling of an aircraft from the sky like the missing persons of the C-130 plane crash.

At a glance, one can see how often the law is brushed aside. With out following the judicial rules, empty coffins are paraded which seem to perturb the silent public. No one raises any objection— not even the grieving victims’ relatives who took P60,000 (less than $2,000) as “financial” aids for the “death” of their loved ones. =0=

UPDATE: September 2, 2008, a day after the military’s posthumous tribute was held, 7 bodies out of 9 were allegedly recovered. Though not all bodies were complete, waiting for some time was more appropriate so taht the remains of those who perished in C-130 plane crash could be included in the memorial. In keeping with the law, a premature declaraion of death could be avoided.

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