GOVERNMENT officials and the police blamed communist rebels and progressive groups for starting the protest that killed three people in Kidapawan City as protesting farmers lifted their blockade of an inter-provincial highway and sought refuge at a nearby church compound.
But government critics dismissed the red-baiting as a deliberate attempt to twist the facts and escape accountability for the three deaths and injury to at least 116 protesters and 99 policemen.
Instead, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mel Sarmiento conferred medals on the injured policemen, including a police sergeant who is still in critical condition after suffering a head fracture and hemorrhage because of the incident.
The protesting farmers and police clashed on Friday morning after protesters refused to dismantle the barricade they put up on the highway linking Cotabato and Davao Cities to dramatize their desire for a drought-related subsidy and sacks of rice for their families.
Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the protesters were not really residents of North Cotabato and that they were only ferried from outside the province for propaganda purposes.
“Have you realized who can summon thousands of farmers from outside North Cotabato and linger there for several days? Who feeds them on a daily basis? asked Lacierda over social networking site Facebook.
“What was promised to them that they would travel outside their province to descend upon North Cotabato? The leftists have been at this game for the longest time,” Lacierda said.
Presidential Communication Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III also suggested that militant groups may have taken advantage of the protest before the dispersal and said the authorities will conduct an extensive investigation into the deadly dispersal.
“First of all, I believe it is fair for all of us to expect and require thorough, impartial investigation.
There is no reason why people must die in order to be asking for assistance from their own government,” Quezon said in an interview over a state-owned Radyo ng Bayan.
“At the same time, there is no reason why a tragedy must be compounded by hotheaded statements or rushing to judgment. It will not help anyone,” he added.
“There’s a tremendous number of wounded people on both sides. Lives have been lost and we owe it to ourselves as a society and to the farmers themselves and people in the affected areas to find out what exactly happened and why it did lead to this,” he said.
But North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou “Lala” Mendoza held a press conference in Kidapawan with Sarmiento and Philippine National Police chief Director General Ricardo Marquez to deplore the supposed communist infiltration of the protesters’ ranks.
“It’s an insult to us, the [local government units], to be used for political propaganda in the province of Cotabato. It’s an insult to our policemen that many of them were hurt, 140 [protesters], 99 from the PNP [are wounded] and 21 are [ralliysts], there are some who died because they were stoned,” she said.
Mendoza said there was no need for peasant groups to blocked the Cotabato-Davao highway to air their grievances because they could ask for relief intervention at the provincial capitol.
“The local government units have already started initiating relief operations for drought-stricken communities before this happened. There was no need for them to gather in Kidapawan City for a rally. Well, maybe because many of them are not from the province,” she said.
Marquez, for his part, claimed that one of the dead protesters was found to have traces of gunpowder on his hand and was found to be carrying caliber .45 bullets.
Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Evangelista also insisted that the protesters were not all farmers, but members of “progressive groups” who wanted to “extort” rice from the National Food Authority warehouse near the site of the protest.
“They are not all farmers, and most of them come from progressive groups,” Evangelista told The Standard.
“Anakpawis, Anakbayan, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Gabriela, the Suara Bangsamoro, Bayan, Bayan Muna—are they farmers? It’s not right that their objective is to try and ransack the NFA warehouse,” he said.
“There are some from Bukidnon, Davao del Sur, Sultan Kudarat, Davao City. They are the ones who came to Kidapawan demanding rice. Why can’t they ask their government units for rice? They have calamity funds in their municipalities, why go to North Cotabato,” he said.
North Cotabato police chief Supt. Alexander Tagum, in a separate interview, said the crowd were mostly “hakot,” with some of the farmers allegedly claiming that they were fooled by the organizers “that they will be given rice” if they joined the protests.
But Jerome Succor Aba, spokesman of Moro human rights group Suara Bangsamoro, denied claims that the protesters were mostly communist sympathizers.
“Red-baiting is an old tune they have repeatedly used to belittle dismiss legitimate protests,” he said.
After the dispersal, the protesting farmers fled to the nearby compound of the Spottswood Methodist Church, but Governor Mendoza threatened Bishop Ciriaco Francisco that they would prosecute the prelate for harboring the farmers.
“We are being kept here by the police, there are uniformed men around the church. No one, not even the priests, nuns who want to give us food were being permitted to help us inside,” Aba lamented Friday night.
“They even cut our electricity and the cellphone signals were being cut by the police. It’s like Martial Law, we’re crying for help,” he added.
On early Saturday morning, the police was able to secure a warrant to search the church compound for guns, but found nothing.
“They didn’t find anything inside the compound but they’re treating us like prisoners,” said Ariel Casilao of the Solidarity Action Group for Indigenous People and Peasants.
But Kabataan partylist Rep. Terry Ridon on Saturday blasted the police and DILG Saturday for “deliberately twisting facts” and pinning the blame for the bloody massacre of farmers on the protesters themselves.
Speaking inside the United Methodist Church compound in Kidapawan City where more than 5,000 farmer protesters sought refuge following the bloody open-firing, Ridon said the PNP is clearly spinning the news to escape accountability.
“[PNP chief] Marquez should be ashamed of himself. His statement lends greater insult to the deaths of farmers by insinuating that they had guns and fired shots at the police,” Ridon said.
“The crime lab results are a farce and should not be given any ounce of credibility, as we cannot expect the PNP to deliver an honest and independent finding on the conduct of their men and the incident itself.
“It should be noted that the PNP took custody of the dead bodies, and cordoned the scene of the massacre. This has given them all the opportunity to plant all evidence on the dead, such as the nearby 45 pistol and nitrates on fingers,” Ridon explained.
Ridon also slammed the DILG for awarding medals to the PNP personnel who took part in the bloody massacre.
“Shame on DILG. Shame on Sec. Sarmiento. Shame on the Aquino administration for prioritizing the awarding their killer personnel instead of simply giving the protesting farmers their sacks of rice,” Ridon said, adding that the move to award the police involved in the massacre “speaks volumes of the Aquino government’s unabashed hypocrisy.”
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