ADMINISTRATION officials and their allies took to social media Monday to defend the use of lethal force to break up a protest in Kidapawan City last week that resulted in the death of three farmers, while President Benigno Aquino III maintained his silence four days after the bloody incident.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, who took a leave last year to campaign for the administration’s standard bearer Manuel Roxas II, said on her Facebook page that the incident appeared to be motivated, since the farmers took refuge at the Spottswood Methodist Center, which “also happens to be the headquarters of presidential aspirant Davao City Mayor Rodgrigo Duterte” in North Cotabato.
The allegation dovetailed with North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza’s accusation that Duterte, who promised to donate rice to the starving farmers, was politicizing the strife in her province.
Valte said leftists “like to pick on those who don’t share their beliefs and criticize their ways,” and that the administration only fault was “to try to bring some rational thought in this conversation.”
Two days earlier, presidential spokesman also pointed the finger at Duterte.
“Not so coincidentally, from the presidentiables, only Duterte issued the same leftist slant, that this is a massacre. Without even calling for an investigation and without even bothering to know who started it all, Duterte aped and mouthed the same leftist message. You do the math.”
The President’s speechwriter, Jan Mikael Co, said on his Facebook page that government aid was already reaching the farmers, and cited “ongoing interventions” such as cloud seeding and the distribution of drought-resistant crops.
He also blasted militant groups for politicizing the protests.
President Aquino remained silent on Kidapawan while attending a ceremony to distribute firetrucks in Quezon City Monday.
But Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento, who was with him, said the North Cotabato provincial government “followed all the right protocols for crisis management,” even though the Commission on Human Rights questioned the police use of M-16 rifles and the firing of live ammunition during the dispersal of protesters.
He added that the police exercised “maximum tolerance” and said they were “on the receiving end” of the encounter with farmers.
Sarmiento said the farmers had “other plans in mind, aside from getting rice from the government.”
“Who organized the protest? Who financed it? People from other provinces were brought there. Who told the people that rice would be distributed? What was the motive of the protest? Rice or to protest [the government’s anti-insurgency program]? What really is the motive? We should determine that,” he said.
In a television interview, Mendoza admitted that the protesters’ concerns were all valid, but she maintained that blocking off a portion of the national highway was illegal, forcing her local police to act accordingly.
“It’s true that their needs are all legitimate because there really is El Niño in our province,” Mendoza said on GMA-7’s morning news program Unang Balita.
“But their way of expressing their concerns to the government by rallying, that’s what we don’t want,” she said.
Mendoza said the police and military were ordered to disperse the crowd so that the highway could be opened again to motorists.
“What happened last Friday was just a clearing operation to open up the national highway from illegal assembly,” she said.
“From Tuesday to Friday, the national highway was closed for four days even without a permit from the rallyists,” she added.
Mendoza added that the Cotabato police, led by Senior Supt. Alex Tagum had already filed several complaints against 43 protesters they arrested, including farmers that are her constituents from the towns of Arakan, Antipas, President Roxas, and Magpet.
Complaints included economic sabotage, harassment, obstruction of traffic flow and illegal assembly.
In General Santos City, at least 200 protesters barricaded the highway fronting the National Food Authority on Monday morning to urge the government to help drought-stricken farmers, and to denounce the violent dispersal of farmers in Kidapawan City.
“Anti-riot cops were deployed but negotiations were successful. We explained that we are only here to demand the national government to release immediate relief for the farmers who are affected by the El Niño,” said Ryan Lariba, spokesman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Socsksargen. The protesters manned the barricade at 10 a.m. and peacefully ended it after an hour.
“We would like to deliver a strong message that farmers and their families are already very hungry,” he added.
He recognized that some local government units have provided help but said the aid has not been enough and should be supplemented by the national government.
Rafael Mariano of the peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said that the administration is planning a cover-up of last Friday’s bloody dispersal, as he called for an independent investigation.
On Monday, groups composed of prominent civil libertarians, church officials, and academicians announced that they will spearhead a “National Fact Finding and Humanitarian mission” separate from the government’s to gather more information on the Kidapawan incident and to provide legal and medical assistance to the farmers detained by the PNP and those gathered at the Spottwoods Methodist church.
“The Aquino government’s lies and deception machinery are all geared towards covering up the truth behind last Friday’s bloody dispersal of farmers demanding food aid from the government,” Mariano said.
“Farmers do not trust the PNP or any other government investigating body to probe the Kidapawan carnage. Not even the Commission on Human Rights,” Mariano said.
Kabataan Party-list Rep. Terry Ridon said they were also readying charges against Mendoza and other police and local officials of Kidapawan who were involved in the violent dispersal.
Ridon added that President Aquino should answer for the deths.
“Where was PNoy when the hungry farmers in North Cotabato demanded rice? Instead of sacks of rice, they gave the farmers bullets,” said Ridon.
Ridon said that they will file counter-charges of multiple murder, serious physical injuries, and violation of human rights.
On Monday, Sarmiento said he has ordered the creation of two fact-finding panels to investigate the incident, but on Saturday, he distributed awards to police officers who were involved in Friday’s violent dispersal.
Philippine National Police chief Ricardo Marquez said the leftist supporters of the farmers wanted to hold the government hostage by blockading the Davao-Cotabato highway last week.
He also vowed to keep the highway open.
Marquez said the PNP was conducting its own investigation to see if there were lapses on the side of the police.
He said at least 90 policemen were injured, including one critically, in the same incident.
The National Association of Lawyers for Justice and Peace questioned the government’s claims on Monday, noting that Mendoza could not name even one beneficiary or cite one town or barangay that had received aid meant for victims of drought.
“She also claimed that some of the protesters were from Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, Compostella Valley and Davao Del Sur, and that they had admitted to her that they had joined the rally on a promise of free rice from the government. But she did not identify even one of the supposed protesters from outside the province. Neither did she name or give any hint on the identity of their recruiter,” the lawyers said in a statement.
They also questioned police claims that a farmer tested positive for gunpowder residue and that he was carrying .45 bullets—noting that the person was not identified and that no photograph of him was produced. Even the bullets were not presented to the press, the lawyers said.
Militant groups denounced what they called the “Liberal Party-sponsored martial law in Kidapawan” as police and the military turned the rally site into a garrison with tanks and heavily armed men surrounding the Methodist Church were some 3,000 farmers sought refuge after the bloody dispersal of their barricade Friday.
Even those seriously injured and being treated in hospitals due to gunshot wounds were placed in handcuffs and were being heavily guarded, according to reports from the KMP, Gabriela, Anakbayan and Kabataan.
“The UMC compound in Kidapawan City with more than 3,000 farmers seeking refuge is being cordoned off by combined elements of the 39th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army and the Philippine National Police-Region 12 and threatening farmers at the gates that [these forces] will enter the compound in 15 minutes,” KMP chairman Rafael Mariano said.
Mariano also noted that “illegal detention, unabated harassment, the violation of farmers’ rights to food, and psywar have become a norm in Kidapawan.”
“Hell bent in securing their win in the 2016 elections, President Benigno Aquino III and his Liberal Party minions like North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Lala Talino-Mendoza are too busy to care for the plight of the farmers affected by El Niño. To his last days in office, Aquino has shown that his haciendero heart will never have room for the welfare of farmers,” Gabriela-Quezon spokesperson Alex Pacalda said.
“Governor Talino-Mendoza has shown no remorse and has even justified the massacre of the poor farmers. Her role in the bloody incident and her attitude afterwards has shown she is clearly unfit for public service. She must leave and she should take her butcher North Cotabato Police chief Alexander Tagum with her,” Gabriela’s second nominee Arlene Brosas added.
“The undeclared martial law in Kidapawan must be stopped. This madness must be stopped,” Mariano said.
“Aquino’s failure to stop this madness is tantamount to a green light to Governor Taliño-Mendoza, the military and the police to perpetuate the escalating human rights violations in Kidapawan,” the peasant leader said.
Pacalda said neglect of the national government in preparing for El Niño has pushed the farmers to the brink of hunger and death.
This desperate condition, Brosas said was the main reason the farmers marched in protest and barricaded the National Food Authority warehouse that blocked the Cotabato-Davao highway.
In a joint statement, Anakbayan chairperson Vencer Crisostomo, Anakbayan secretary general Einstein Recedes and Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon, who were at the UMC compound assisting the farmers, said fully-armed police forces continue to surround the UMC compound and battle positions were taken on the front gate while soldiers of the 39th Infantry Brigade blocked the back gate.
“We also spotted at least two tanks roving around the compound,” they said.
“The farmers and their supporters who took part in the protest are practically cornered with the threat of violence from the police hanging over their heads. There are still over 3,000 farmers, their families, and supporters currently in the compound,” the joint statement said.
“When our group arrived, the police had already entered the church premises and turned the place upside down in their search for firearms allegedly stocked in the compound. But contrary to their claims that the protesters were armed, no firearms were found by the police search team,” the joint statement added.
Using megaphones, they said, the heavily armed police forces from outside the gate repeatedly called on people to go home, threatening to assault and bomb the UMC area.
Only the arrival of action star Robin Padilla somehow eased the tension and lifted the spirits of the farmers.
Padilla, they said, spoke with the victims, consoled them and donated sacks of rice to the farmers and their families.
In the morning of April 3, the youth leaders said tensions rose when police blocked 300 farmers from nearby Makilala Gym, who wanted to join their companions in solidarity inside the compound and get their share of donated rice.
“Policemen were seen loading and raising their rifles as if to shoot the farmers,” the statement said.
At least 79 farmers remained locked up in the Kidapawan Gym and convention center despite the lack of charges, they said.
Among them were pregnant women and minors, they added.
“Only days after their arrest were inquest proceedings done to file direct assault charges for their participation in the protests. They would most likely need to post P6,000-P12,000 each as bail bond,” the youth leaders said.
“The local government continues to withhold information on the whereabouts of the dead and the victims. The quick reaction teams who were formed to look for the dead and injured were initially prevented from leaving the church compound. The local hospital we visited said they were prohibited by the LGU from providing information or verifying the identity and cause of death of those who died,” the statement said.
“No one from government is taking care of the victims and their families: no medical assistance, no food assistance. It was left to youth volunteers to compile information on the missing and the injured and help families locate their loved ones. They relied on food donations from concerned citizens. We went to morgues and hospitals. Some wounded patients are handcuffed while heavily armed guards watch over them inside the hospital rooms.
“As if this was not enough, the local government has begun mobilizing some barangay officials to coerce farmers to go back to their barrios. They are dissuaded from asserting their demands and threatened to just leave the compound with nothing in their hands, only the word from these officials that food is waiting for them once they got home. There are also reports coming in that North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Lala Talino Mendoza is offering P50,000 per barangay and gathering people to hold a pro-government rally,” they said in a statement.
What is worse, they said, Talino-Mendoza has expressed her displeasure with the outpour of donations for the victims from all over the country.
“We fear that police forces may block these contributions from reaching the farmers,” they said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares lashed out at Lacierda for blaming leftists for the bloody incident.
“Is Edwin suffering from selective amnesia? The kind that besets those who can only see things from the perspective of interest. Not too long ago, students, professionals, artists, universities, church groups, civic groups and many work worked together to feed the lumad the government has driven from their lands,” Colmenares said.
“The militant Left, despite its own poverty of resources, has always tried to help those seeking justice. But it cannot claim a monopoly -- as is clearly shown today with the outpouring of offers from private individuals like Robin Padilla and many others, who clearly see injustice where the government is blind,” he added.
“It’s not enough that you ignore their pleas for food, Mr. Lacierda? You actually decry the fact that people help them with food? Would you rather they starve? Is that why armed cops are blocking other farmers to partake of rice given by others?” Colmenares said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate vowed to bring the case before the United Nations Human Rights Commission to exact accountability from the police and government officials who tolerated the violent dispersal of the protesting farmers.
Zarate also denounced the Aquino government’s “move to cover up the incident by hastily exonerating the culpability of the policemen involved by awarding them with merit medals.”
He said his group would collate all the evidence to bring a strong case to the UNCHR.
Abakada party-list Rep. Jonathan de la Cruz said he would file a resolution calling for a congressional probe of the incident, including questions about the status of El Niño mitigation funds.
Vice presidential candidate Senator Francis Escudero also called on Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to account for every cenatvo in the El Niño mitigation fund, which is supposed to be used to help farmers affected by drought. With Maricel V. Cruz, Sandy Araneta and Macon Ramos-Araneta
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