LIKE Pontius Pilate, President Aquino last week tried to wash his hands of the killing of two farmers in Kidapawan City by police who fired M-16 rifles into the protesters’ ranks, and the wounding of more than 100 others in a violent dispersal on April 1.
The farmers, suffering from five months of drought, had blocked the highway from Cotabato to Davao, demanding food aid in the form of sacks of rice to feed their hungry families.
Aquino did not use the words, but we can almost hear him say them: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!”
Speaking to reporters in Lipa City, Batangas, Aquino said he was still awaiting the results of an investigation into the incident, but said it appeared that an organized group had duped people from different places into believing that they would receive rice from the government by joining the mass action.
“It seems that somebody organized this to a create violence. That is what we need to investigate,” President Aquino said. “They did this to exploit the people.”
He said the Justice department would set free those who were duped into joining the rally, but said he felt it was not justified for the hungry farmers to block the main highway or to attack the police when they tried to disperse them.
The President also insisted that the actions of the authorities to disperse the protesters were lawful, since the activists did not secure permits for the rally.
It was clear, however, that the President was cherry-picking the facts and highlighting only what he wanted us to see.
Any reasonable person, for example, would conclude that the lack of a permit paled in comparison to the shooting deaths of two civilians exercising their right to free assembly.
But nowhere in his remarks did the President say why police were armed with M-16 rifles and used them against civilians in violation of all rules governing crowd dispersal operations.
It is not enough to say the farmers had rocks; or that they had started the melee. The police should not have had guns; they should not have used them. The President did not just gloss over this reality; he ignored it altogether.
The President also said nothing of the other human rights abuses that agents of his government committed against the farmers that day, and the months leading to the tragic Kidapawan incident.
The President blames organizers of the protest for duping the farmers with the promise of free rice, but wasn’t that exactly what they needed and hoped to get in the first place?
When has it been a crime to organize a protest? To give voice to the grievances of the oppressed?
Despite the billions of pesos allocated to dealing with the El Niño and the drought, the protesting farmers and their families were hungry. That fact alone trumps all government claims that they had poured the funds into cloud seeding and other drought alleviation measures. If they had indeed spent that money, it clearly had no impact on the protesting farmers—or they would not have been there on the fateful Cotabato-Davao highway.
Again, any reasonable person would conclude that the government agencies tasked with giving them relief had not done their jobs in the last five months. But the President’s knee-jerk reaction was to blame the organizers, not his own people who by dint of corruption, ineptitude or both, failed—and continue to fail—the farmers of North Cotabato.
Mr. Aquino, who waited an entire week before talking about the bloody dispersal then explained his delayed reaction by saying he had the flu, expects us to believe him now when he says that national, provincial and city government officials and the police were not to blame for the Kidapawan bloodshed. But history will judge him otherwise. Like Pontius Pilate, Mr. Aquino has innocent blood on his hands, and no amount of washing will clear away the stain.