CHURCH leaders on Tuesday condemned the violent dispersal of protesting farmers in Kidapawan City that led to the death of three protesters on April 1, saying it is never a sin for the hungry to demand food.
A Methodist bishop whose church was being threatened with legal action for giving refuge to the farmers after last week’s violent dispersal denounced the government for pushing farmers “to the brink of starvation.”
“It is never a sin when poor farmers demand for food, but it is a sin to deny them food. And when the might of the bullets and guns [is] used against the poor in their rightful demand for their basic needs, a monstrous violation of what is decent, upright, and just has been committed,” Bishop Ciriaco Francisco of the Spottwoods United Methodist Church, said in a pastoral statement.
“The shooting of the poor farmers that claimed the lives of three people on April 1 during their protest is condemnable. There is no justification for this murderous act of some concerned members of the PNP.”
Francisco slammed the government’s response to the simple plea for bread, as “their cries for food were answered through the barrel of the gun.”
“As bullets rained upon them and pierced their bodies, the gathered crowd sought only the fulfillment of a simple prayer: rice for their families,” the prelate said.
The Catholic Church on Tuesday joined in condemning last week’s violent dispersal of the protesting farmers.
“This is not the way to react to the grievances of the farmers that the government was not able to address in the first place,” said Manila Auxiliary Bishop and public affairs chief of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines Broderick Pabillo.
“The El Niño is not like a typhoon that can [catch] the government unprepared. It had already been forecast two years ago. It... hit the country [in] September last year. The government has not done anything to address this problem,” said Pabillo in a statement on the Radio Veritas website.
The bishop said the Catholic Church has been calling the government’s attention to the problem for months, but to no avail.
Despite the declaration of states of calamity in areas in Mindanao, the farmers have not received any help that they can feel, the bishop added.
“It is very troubling that the police and the military are always being sent to harass, wound and kill the poor— whether they be farmers, lumad, urban poor, or workers who protest and rally because they suffer and their rights are not being addressed. They are blamed in the name of national security and are accused [of being] led by communists,” Pabillo said.
The prelate also assailed the protection provided by the police and the military to rich corporations, particularly mining companies and corporate plantations as well as politicians—entities that oppress the poor and the marginalized.
He also criticized the callousness of the Aquino administration towards the plight of the poor, the farmers, and indigenous peoples, saying it should be held accountable for the Kidapawan city deaths.
On April 1, police broke up a four-day protest barricade set up along a major highway in Kidapawan to prod the government into providing them with food aid amid a five-month drought.
Local officials led by North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza and Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Evangelista defended the violent dispersal that killed three farmers and injured hundreds of protesters and police.
They have also filed charges against the protesters and have warned the Methodist Church against giving them refuge.
Mendoza, in a signed letter to Francisco, insisted Friday last week that the Methodist prelate should expel the farmers seeking refuge inside the church compound, saying that they had already violated several local laws.
“This protest rally which have occurred for four days already have greatly impaired if not paralyzed mostly the daily routine of the people of the city and the province as a whole and have caused economic sabotage to the businesses and welfare of the constituents,” Mendoza’s letter dated April 1 read.
“With these, please be informed that your action of harboring these protesters is punishable by law. We might be constrained to take legal action against you unless you cooperate with us in addressing this issue formally and legally.”
The farmers who had sought refuge inside the church accused the city and the police of illegal detention by refusing to allow them to leave without facing arrest.
Since Sunday, heavily armed police have barred some 300 farmers from entering the church compound to get their share of rice donated by private individuals.
In his pastoral letter, Francisco defended his decision to let the farmers seek refuge inside the Methodist center, saying the church was only asserting “its right to protect the vulnerable.”
“By offering our sanctuary, we are not just being hospitable to our farmers and hungry ones, but we are making them as one among us. When we welcome them in our ‘home,’ our sanctuary, we did not only give our best, but we share with them our deep kinship. By offering them our sanctuaries, we recognize their suffering and hopes, their struggles and aspirations.”
Evangelista, the Kidapawan mayor, also wrote the church warning that its permit might be revoked for making the compound “headquarters [for] billeting and harboring leaders and members of illegal rallyists [wanted] for unlawfully barricading or blocking public roads.”
But Emmanuel Mahipus, the legal counsel of the United Methodist Church, sought the legal basis for the mayor’s threat.
As a public officer, [you need] to maintain your office as a public trust and refrain from using your office in furtherance of any injustice,” Mahipus’ letter to Evangelista said.
On Tuesday, an independent probe slammed the national government and local officials for their on-going “cover up” of the police attack on protesting farmers.
“In a desperate attempt to dodge accountability, the Aquino government is pulling all stops on the ground to cover up the role of the Philippine National Police, the local government units and the powers-that-be in the violent dispersal of the farmer’s protest actions in Kidapawan,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, one of the groups participating in the National Fact-Finding Mission said.
Palabay added that there was “an impression of martial law, there’s increased restriction on freedom of movement among the people particularly in the Methodist Center and in the hospital.”
The NFFM also pointed to several “maneuvers” by the police and local government officials to destroy evidence by clearing the crime scene and burning personal effects confiscated from the protesters before and after last week’s dispersal.
The police also prevented para-legals and quick reaction teams from leaving the Spottswood compound to gather important details and documentation on the incident, and provide emergency support to the victims and their families.
“Armored personnel carrier[s]... along the road, [a] military and police encampment within the United Methodist Church compound, and police in full battle gear roving the hospitals where farmer-victims are confined and places where farmers who were illegally arrested and currently detained—these are all clear and visible signs...of a state of undeclared martial law in Kidapawan,” said Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas Secretary-General Antonio Flores, who also co-heads the NFFM delegation.
On Tuesday, NFFM members saw at least three APCs in Makilala and roving tanks in Kidapawan City. At least 25 members of the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, most with long firearms, were seen in the vicinity of the hospitals and just outside the rooms where the farmer-victims were confined. At least six victims and injured individuals in two hospitals were all charged with direct assault. There were also at least 46 police surrounding the Kidapawan Gym and the Kidapawan City Convention Center.
After negotiations by the humanitarian mission, the police finally allowed the 300 Makilala farmers and their children to enter the Spottswood Methodist Center to rest and get their share of the food relief donated by citizens and media from Mindanao. The farmers were barred by police since Sunday from entering the Methodist Center.
Some 100 participants in the fact-finding mission coming from South Cotabato, where another protest of farmers for food relief occurred, arrived at Spottswood Methodist Mission Center to consolidate their reports.
In both chambers of Congress, lawmakers demanded an investigation of the Kidapawan incident.
Vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. filed a resolution asking the Senate to investigate the violent police dispersal.
“It is regrettable that the despondent pleadings of the farmers and the rest of the protesters who have gone famished by the severe crisis in the province, were met by hostility and bloodshed by the forces of the government,” said Marcos.
Marcos said the tragedy could have been prevented had the government acted more decisively and earnestly in solving the problems of the farmers affected by El Niño in Kidapawan City.
The Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives filed a similar resolution, asking the committees on human rights, agriculture and food, and the special committee on agriculture and food and food security to conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation into the bloody dispersal.
At the same time, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said the probe would dig deeper into the El Niño mitigation fund that was supposed to be helping the farmers who are suffering from the drought.
In his separate resolution, Colmenares said that as early as 2012, the weather bureau had forecast that the El Niño phenomenon would hit the country. Malacanang’s claim that they have implemented a comprehensive program for El Nino mitigation since August 2015 came too late, as the drought reached its peak during the first semester of 2016, the resolution said.
Former Bayan Muna congressman Teddy Casiño also lambasted Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala for playing down the plight of the farmers, saying that there was a “120 percent food sufficiency level” in North Cotabato.
“Has the Secretary lost his mind? Cotabato is in a state of calamity because of the drought felt as far back as November 2015,” Casiño said. “There is extensive damage to crops and obvious food shortage for months. We do not know whether the secretary is just detached from the people or simply detached from reality.”
KMP chairman Rafael Mariano dismissed Alcala’s claim as “a blatant lie.”
“He is fooling the farmers and the people,” Mariano said. “In fact, farmers have been forced to feed their family with darak (hog feed).”
“Yes, there is enough rice held by the NFA in Kidapawan. The question is why until now the national and local government are hoarding the rice and deny starving farmers of their right to food,” Mariano said.
Opposition candidate for president Vice President Jejomar Binay said the Kidapawan tragedy was the result of the administration’s failure to address poverty. With Christine F. Herrera and Maricel V. Cruz
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