THREE farmers were killed and at least 53 others were injured when police seeking to break up a three-day protest along the Cotabato-Davao highway fired their M-16 rifles into the crowd. Sixty more farmers, who were demanding food aid amid a worsening drought, were missing.
In the aftermath of the bloody dispersal, protesters sought refuge at the nearby Spottswood Methodist Mission Center, fearing for their lives.
Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Evangelista said the leaders of the protest would be arrested the moment they stepped out of the center.
“They committed a crime; we should prosecute them. They cannot just go out of the Methodist center and walk scot-free. They have a responsibility to account for [what happened,]” he said.
The mayor added that police were also injured during the dispersal, some of them critically, and that not all of those at the barricades were farmers.
On Wednesday, some 6,000 farmers suffering from drought brought about by the El Niño phenomenon blocked a portion of the Cotabato-Davao highway to dramatize their misery and to prod the government to action. The protest in front of the National Food Authority warehouse stranded hundreds of vehicles and commuters on both sides of the 220-kilometer freeway connecting Cotabato and Davao.
The farmers and city officials blamed each other for the bloody incident.
Negotiations with North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza failed after the governor refused to give into the farmers’ demand for 15,000 sacks of rice as food relief in the face of a drought.
Pedro Arnado, chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) Cotabato chapter, said the governor was supposed to hold a second round of talks with the farmers Friday, but they received a call early Friday from someone who read a resolution telling them to leave the area and accusing them of economic sabotage for disrupting the flow of commerce.
Arnado said that after they received the call, the mayor and some social workers from the city government tried “to rescue” pregnant women and children who had joined the picket.
Evangelista, in an interview, told The Standard that they had given the farmers “enough time” to air their grievances, and that the farmers should understand that they were protecting their constituents and the businesses in the area, who were hurt by the blockade.
“We kept on insisting that the rice is already in the barangay level, after the barangay has released its calamity funds, they could go to the municipal level. Even the governor has ensured that the provincial calamity funds will be used... We gave them enough time, but the economy of Kidapawan is suffering. We cannot just let these things pass,” Evangelista said.
The mayor said they followed standard operating procedure in dealing with the farmers’ protest.
“We requested them to clear the highway and [to let] the children, the pregnant women… [be] rescued…. My chief of police then issued a notice... for them to leave,” he said.
But Arnado said they pleaded with the authorities.
“All we wanted was relief from the drought, especially the rice, and we would peacefully leave but the chief of police insisted that they would disperse us by force if we did not leave,” Arnado said.
The mayor said because the protesters “resisted,” Col. Alex Tagum “give them a final warning.”
“That’s why our troops entered to clear the highway,” he said.
Arnado said it was the police who started the violence.
“Upon orders of the Col. Alex Tagum, the engines of the firetrucks were turned on and water cannons started bombarding us. The riot police began moving in, we were pushed by their shields and they began striking us with their batons. The farmers were very angry and started to resist the dispersal by throwing stones at the police… I was telling them that we should not counter [the police] because we do not have any fighting chance against them, but they started shooting us with M16 rifles—bang bang bang, I told them to retreat,” Arnado said.
Evangelista countered that the water cannon was used only after “three angry farmers started to hit one of my policemen.”
“They were hitting our men with stones. We all have the footages to prove what happened,” he said.
Mendoza, in an interview with Mindanao-based reporters, said the police were non-violent in performing their duties at the barricade because they were ordered to observe maximum tolerance.
“While the police were trying to rescue the children, the protesters started throwing stones at them. At least 20 cops sustained wounds from the rocks. And then a gunshot was heard and a police reportedly got hit,” Mendoza said, claiming that the first shot came from the protesters.
Jerome Aba, a spokesman of Moro human rights group Suara Bangsamoro, who also suffered a leg injury, confirmed that two farmers from the line of the protesters were dead on the spot, identified as Victor Lumandang and Rutello Daelto, both from North Cotabato province.
The third farmer, identified as Enrico Pabrica of Kidapawan City, died of gunshot wounds as he was being treated.
Reports from independent outfit Kilab Multimedia confirmed that more than 60 farmers were missing and more than 30 from the side of the farmers were injured.
The mayor confirmed that 23 police were wounded, with some critically injured after being stoned by the protesters.
Following the riot, the protesters sought refuge at the Spottswood Methodist Mission Center, few blocks away from where they set up their barricade.
“We are now in the compound of the Methodist Center in Kidapawan and the police are at the gate trying to barge in to arrest us,” Aba said, adding that at least two farmers were arrested during the clash.
Aba and Arnado both feared that they would be arrested if they left the Methodist center.
“Up until now, many of the farmers fear for their lives because they see uniformed soldiers who are making the rounds in the area. One of the farmers even peeked into a hit list that included me and other leaders. We’re hiding now,” Arnado said.
In a statement, Mendoza said that she and the LGUs of the second district of North Cotabato take full responsibility for the incident, but she maintained that the protesting farmers had no rally permits for their barricade.
“There are people who died and were injured, and no governor, mayor or provincial administrator would want this to happen. We know that we have constituents that are members of progressive groups. We wish that this incident would find us a common ground and they would understand how hard our situation is,” Mendoza’s statement read.
But Evangelista said if the leaders of the protests walk out of the church, they will be immediately arrested and would be made accountable for the incident.
He added that not everyone in the barricade was a farmer.
“There are people who are rallying from South Cotabato, Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, they are no longer legitimate farmers,” he said, adding that they were just bused in for the protest.
“If they are legitimate farmers, why are... Anak Pawis, Gabriela, Bayan Muna, KMP [present?] What are they doing there?” the mayor said.
The Palace said it has ordered a thorough investigation into the Kidapanwan incident.
“The PNP is conducting a thorough investigation, and has reported that 40 members of the police force were wounded, including two police officers who suffered severe head trauma injuries as an offshoot of the clash between the authorities and mass action participants,” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said.
“Accountability is being established and appropriate sanctions will be meted out if justified by the findings of the investigation,” Coloma said.
KMP secretary general Antonio Flores condemned the bloody dispersal of farmers.
“Instead of food, the demands of the drought-stricken and starving farmers were ruthlessly answered by bullets, reminding us of the Mendiola and Hacienda Luisita massacres,” Flores said.
“We cannot understand why government could not grant the farmers’ demand to provide them a subsidy of 15,000 sacks of rice when it can afford to let 200,000 sacks of rice rot in Tacloban, Leyte,” he added.
The bloody incident was also condemned by militant groups, lawmakers, church-based organizations and presidential candidates.
The militant League of Filipino Students put the blame on President Benigno Aquino III, who they called “the massacre king.”
“This is the legacy of Aquino. The administration abandoned its responsibilities to the people but if the people demand their democratic and legitimate rights, the government will employ brutal and bloody measures against them,” LFS chairperson Charisse Bañez said.
“We are reminded of the massacre in Hacienda Luista, the large parcels of land owned by the President’s family. Even during his term as the President, lumad in Mindanao were brutally killed and massacred – from Paquibato to Lianga to different lumad communities,” she said.
“As massacre king, Aquino makes use of state armed forces – the police and military - to repeatedly violate our human rights and right to organize and peaceable assembly.... We cannot allow this to continue,” Bañez added.
Anakpawis said Governor Mendoza, a Liberal Party stalwart, plans to arrest the leaders of the protest and charge them with economic sabotage, direct assault, illegal assembly and other offenses.
“The province is essentially under martial law. A cohort of President Aquino has ordered the violent dispersal resulting in the deaths and wounding of farmers who are demanding government help due to the effects of El Niño,” said Anakpawis national vice president Ariel Casilao.
Casilao also said the death toll had reached three―but this could not be independently confirmed.
Opposition presidential candidate Vice President Jejomar Binay said he deplored the use of violence to disperse the farmers.
“They asked for rice, but they got bullets,” said his spokesman Rico Quicho.
“Hunger is a reality that must be addressed not by violence but by compassion and concrete programs to improve the lives of the poor,” he added.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr. said the government should have heeded the demands of the farmers, who were suffering from severe drought.
“Firing on unarmed protesters is deplorable and is not the answer to the farmers’ demands. The Aquino regime and Governor Lala Mendoza should be made accountable for the bloody dispersal. We call on our friends to stand with the farmers of Kidawapan during this most difficult time in their struggle. Let us add our voices in condemning this latest atrocity,” Reyes said.
Presidential candidate Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago called the Kidapawan dispersal “inhuman” and said the government should be held accountable for the violence.
“It is vile enough that this administration has failed to support the farmers and lumad of Kidapawan during the prolonged drought in Mindanao. But it is downright inhuman for them to shoot at the same people begging for help,” the senator said.
Santiago said the incident should immediately be investigated and those guilty be swiftly brought to justice. She also urged the administration to improve support for the agriculture sector to consistently ensure sufficient food supply.
“In the first place, there would not have been a protest if only these people felt compassion from their leaders. This government cannot claim to be pro-poor when it answers pleas for help with bursts of gunshot,” the senator said.
Human rights group Karapatan held President Aquino, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Mendoza, and PNP Col. Alex Tagum accountable for the assault on the farmers.
The KMP also said administration candidate Manuel Roxas II’s reaction to the violent dispersal showed his true “haciendero roots.”
“Roxas’ insensitive and unsympathetic comments are devoid of any condemnation towards the state-sponsored violence against farmers,” Flores said.
In a statement, Roxas said “the first task of the day is to restore order to the area and make sure that no clash happens again” as he “called on the PNP and other concerned agencies to investigate as to the true cause of the clash and, if warranted, punish those accountable.”
“Roxas’ statement is a highly unacceptable April Fool’s joke,” Flores said.
“Not only did Roxas insult the farmers and their just demands, he also maliciously implied that a battle happened between protesters and government forces, when in fact, it was a massacre committed by the police and military,” he added.
“In case Roxas doesn’t know, thousands of farmers who sought refuge at the United Methodist Church are now being cordoned by police and military. More than a hundred were arrested, 28 are still missing and 92 were wounded in the violent dispersal this morning,” Flores said.
“We condemn the Kidapawan massacre that killed three farmers and wounded scores of protesters. The Aquino government’s callousness and impunity are unacceptable and deserves massive condemnation from the public,” Flores said.
ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio also condemned the shooting of unarmed farmers.
“We are outraged at the PNP’s utter disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens. There can be no justification whatsoever for the PNP’s use of lethal violence against unarmed civilians. Criminal charges must be filed against all PNP officials and personnel involved. There should be no impunity,” Tinio said.
The farmers, belonging to the poorest of the poor in Mindanao, had suffered through months of famine due to El Niño and were engaged in collective protest to demand food and other aid from government, he said.
“The Aquino administration responded to them with bullets,” Tinio said.
Senatorial bet Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares also condemned the shooting.
“Many have been hurt, this is like the Mendiola and Luisita massacres all over again. They claim to be pro-farmers, but instead of givign them rice, they let them eat bullets. What kind of government is this? They answer a calamity with a bloodier calamity,” he said in Filipino.
The Promotion of Church People’s Response expressed its “utter contempt for hardhearted leaders who answered the people’s cry for food with death-dealing bullets and stone-hard blows.”
“When the hunger of the poor brings violent responses from those in leadership, these leaders are not fit to govern,” said Marie Sol Villalon, PCPR co-chairperson. “Our government is plagued with shameful indifference.”
“We stand with the poor farmers and lumad to condemn this ruthless and violent dispersal. We demand that calamity support be immediately given to those stricken by drought in Mindanao. May our hearts be moved with compassion--these cries for food deserve a human and caring response,” she said.
Following the shooting of farmers, students led by LFS and Kabataan Partylist trooped to Mendiola Peace Arch to express their “utmost condemnation.”
Presidential candidate Senator Grace Poe called for an immediate investigation of the bloody dispersal, saying the farmers were making a rightful demand for government aid amid the drought.
“This should have been attended to by the concerned agencies at the outset that would have prevented the farmers from taking to the streets,” she added.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a candidate for vice president, bewailed as “completely unnecessary” the use of bullets to disperse the farmers.
“I deplore the use of bullets to answer legitimate demands of our farmers and their families in North Cotabato. They are hungry and they are just asking for food so they can feed their families. The violent dispersal was completely unnecessary,” he said.
Another leading vice presidential candidate, Senator Francis Escudero, said every citizen has a right to free assembly, and that the concerns of the farmers were legitimate.
“The least the government could do is listen to their concerns and do something about it,” he said.
A native of Davao City, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said the farmers who had been seeking relief from the effects of the drought in Kidapawan City and neighboring towns “deserved help and not bullets.”
“We are enraged by this violence committed against the protesting peasants and lumad. While officials running for office now spend public funds to promote their self-interest, this is what they do to our peasants who merely assert peacefully their right to be given assistance immediately. Bayan Muna condemns this police brutality to the highest degree,” Zarate said.
Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon also lashed out at the Aquino administration for the murder of farmers.
“We condemn in no uncertain terms the violent dispersal of the peaceful barricade of El Niño victims who were only calling for the immediate release of the emergency fund and aid for their starving families,” Ridon said. – With Sandy Araneta, Vito Barcelo, Francisco
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