KIDAPAWAN lifted their blockade Wednesday on a Methodist Church where protesting farmers had sought refuge after their protest was broken up violently on April 1, and some of the protesters began returning to their homes with sacks of donated rice after religious groups and other organizations intervened.
“For now, there’s an agreement to pull out the police from the church,” said Manuel de Leon, president of Notre Dame of Kidapawan. “There will just be a police presence to patrol the traffic on the highway. The KMP [The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas] assured us they will not go back to the streets.”
“Many [of the] policemen were my students. We said let’s talk, the problem is hunger because of the drought. That’s why we need reconciliation. Let’s not go back to the streets, let’s not waste more lives,” he added.
Antonio Flores, secretary-general of the KMP, confirmed that the farmers were being allowed to return to their homes with rice donations from various groups.
Last week, the farmers blocked the Davao-Cotabato highway for four days to dramatize their plight after five months of drought, and to prod the government into helping them. Police broke up the protest violently on Friday, leaving two farmers (not three as originally reported) dead by gunshot wound.
Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Evangelista, who had ordered the dispersal, was against the idea of letting the farmers in the Methodist Church go home, saying they needed to identify and arrest the leaders of the protest.
He also said not all of the protesters were farmers.
“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,]” Evangelista said in an earlier interview.
On Wednesday, the National Anti-Poverty Commission slammed various agencies for playing the blame game in the aftermath of the Kidapawan deaths, and said the government failed to protect North Cotabato residents from El Niño and climate change.
“Blood is already on the hands of the government agencies who failed to deliver immediate relief to the people of North Cotabato. If they do not act now, and justice is not served, more blood will be spilled from a nation they failed to protect against El Niño and climate change,” NAPC Vice Chairperson for the Basic Sectors Ruperto Aleroza, said in a statement.
“The Kidapawan demonstration reflects the magnitude of the El Niño crisis. Urgent adaptation efforts at both national and local levels are necessary to cushion the adverse impacts affecting thousands of hectares of farmlands in Mindanao and other parts of the country.
“Officials continue to defend their use of lethal force to break up the violent protests, blaming the carnage that killed three people on communist insurgents.”
Aleroza said that irregardless of political color, the local government should not have gone overboard in quelling the farmer’s blockade at a major highway.
“The violent dispersal of hungry farmers seeking the release of 15,000 sacks of rice and food subsidies was a violation of the protesters’ right to food and peaceful assembly. Provoked or not, the demonstration was a legitimate form of action. Regardless of the rallyists’ affiliations, the use of fire arms by the local police is unnecessary. Regardless of the political motivations of the protestors, the use of bullets is intolerable,” he added.
The NAPC executive added that the demonstrations only reflect the “magnitude of the El Niño crisis” and the government’s lack of commitment to agriculture.
An independent investigation organized by the human rights group Karapatan and the KMP said the economic problems of the farmers in the region were realities the local and national government neglected to address.
“There is no denying… the extent of the damage caused by the drought, and the untold suffering and hunger brought to the affected farmers. These expose the lies being peddled by the government belittling the effect of the drought in the farmlands to this date,” the national fact-finding mission said.
At a press briefing in Kidapawan City, the mission said farmers Arnel Takyawan and Loreto Lizardo, who were part of the highway protest, had seen a police sniper allegedly positioned on top of the fire truck firing towards the direction of the protesters.
The fact-finding mission added that there were two farmers who died from the bloody dispersal, contrary to earlier reports that there were three who were killed.
Flores told The Standard that they were questioning the death certificate of one of the fatalities, which said the farmer died from injuries. The groups said they have talked with witnesses who said that the farmer was shot.
The probe added that 10 individuals that were wounded from the police shooting spree remain confined in hospitals in Kidapawan, while at least 70 individuals were illegally arrested and are currently detained at the Kidapawan City Gym and Kidapawan Convention Center for charges of direct assault, including some bystanders.
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights group Karapatan and head of the mission, said that President Benigno Aquino III and Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala were also responsible for the bloody outcome of the protest.
“The truth of the matter is clear: the government, after a year of first recognizing the drought threat, failed to provide aid, and killed those who dare decry it,” Palabay said.
“By sheer ineptitude, Alcala has failed to remedy the problems brought by the drought, thus pushing the people to extra-legal measures,” she added.
Department of the Interior and Local Government Undersecretary for Public Safety Peter Irving Corvera in Manila vowed a thorough investigation of the violent dispersal of the farmers’ protest last week.
But the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan dismissed the DILG probe, saying it was “devoid of any credibility” after the department handed out medals to the police involved on day after the bloody dispersal.
“How in the world do we expect the PNP to investigate itself?” said Renato Reyes, Bayan secretary-general. “The PNP officials involved were not even relieved immediately after the incident. They were allowed to continue harassing the farmers several days later. They are suspected of planting evidence on a dead protester. This early on, there are already clear signs of a cover-up,” he added.
Ephraim Cortez of the National Union of People’s Lawyers agreed that “no credible probe can come from the government” as the police “have already destroyed the crime scene using a bulldozer.”
He also accused the police of burning evidence recovered at the crime scene to evade liability.
Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, chairman of the Senate justice and human rights committee, said they want to know how the protests turned bloody on Friday as the Senate investiation into the Kidapawan incident begins in Davao City.
“Farmers in Kidapawan and North Cotabato are hungry because their lands are not productive. They’re not even asking for ‘ulam,’ just rice,” Pimentel said in a television interview over ANC.
“We want to find out why it turned bloody when farmers were only asking for rice,” he added.
Pimentel said that national and local government officials, farmers and non-government organizations were invited to take part in the probe.
Liberal Party vice presidential candidate Leni Robredo meanwhile, asked the government agencies involved to stop pointing fingers and help the farmers first.
“Let’s put all accusations aside. The more important thing here is addressing their needs to show that government is doing something for them,” Robredo said.
The KMP on Wednesday said at least 10 of the country’s 18 regions will mount a peasant-led “Black Friday” on April 8, and call on voters to junk administration candidate Manuel Roxas II when they go to the polls on May 9.
KMP chairman Rafael Mariano said five regions in Mindanao would take part in the protest, along with Central Luzon, Bicol, Eastern Visayas, Negros, and Panay regions.
Mariano said the farmers were outraged by Roxas’ statement that the rally by drought-hit farmers in North Cotabato was instigated by politicians for their own interests.
“This may have been instigated by politicians who wanted something to happen to heighten the issue or raise their ratings,” Roxas said.
Mariano said Roxas’ statement was an outright rejection of the just, legitimate, and moral demands of the North Cotabato farmers’ demand for food aid in the face of the drought brought about by El Nino.
“It’s a cheap shot aimed to conceal the incompetence and criminal negligence of the Aquino government,” Mariano said.
Recent reports quoted Roxas condemning the bloodshed “both on the law enforcement side and on the side of the protesters.”
“What’s needed here is a comprehensive and intensive investigation into what really happened because there are reports that this rally was not organic, meaning it wasn’t the people of North Cotabato who were there,” Roxas said.
Mariano said: “That’s the most stupid thing we’ve heard from a presidential aspirant. The people do not deserve a totally unqualified and stupid president.”
“While Roxas is obviously a nuisance candidate as shown in the surveys, the Filipino people should junk Roxas on the May 9 polls to seal his fate,” Mariano said.
Gabriela Rep. Emmi de Jesus, who is part of the National Fact Finding and Humanitarian Mission in Kidapawan said “the drought and the hunger are real.”
She called North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Talino-Mendoza and Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala “delusional” as the two officials tried to downplay the impact of the long-drawn dry spell in the region.
De Jesus also lambasted LP spokesman Akbayan Rep. Barry Gutierrez, who insisted that the protests were being used for political interests.
“So much time and energy being wasted on futile attempts to deflect accountability and deny beneficiaries of food aid when they could have simply complied with the just demands of North Cotabato farmers,” she said.
“Gutierrez’ insituation that farmers are like sheep led to slaughter is truly reflective of the Liberal Party and Akbayan partylist’s view of peasants, that they cannot think for themselves and cannot fight their own battles. He is no different from North Cotabato Governor Lala Talino-Mendoza, expecting drought victims to be submissive slaves waiting for a few kilos of rice when Mar Roxas finds time to bring his Daang Matuwid gravy train to Cotabato. It was in fact the Liberal Party who intended to use rice distribution as a tactic to force beneficiaries to attend their sorties,” De Jesus said.
Makabayan senatorial candidate Rep. Neri Colmenares said based on the national budget, the province of North Cotabato has at least P321 million in calamity funds for 2016 and the Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Fund (LDRRMF) which consists of not less than 5 percent of its Internal Revenue Allotment and can only be used upon declaration of state of calamity by the local legislative body.
“Also North Cotabato has an allocation of P6.4 billion for 2016 from the national budget and a state of calamity was declared in the province in January this year mandating the provincial government to allot P321 million as calamity fund. Now where is all these money?” Colmenares said.
He said the farmers’ demand in the Kidapawan barricade was only 15,000 sacks of rice, which would amount to only P27 million if multiplied by an estimated price of P1,600 for a 50-kg sack of rice.
“Why did they let the farmers go hungry when they had billions and billions to deal with this problem?” he added in Filipino.
Vice presidential candidate Francis Escudero lashed out at Cotabato police for filing charges against 43 farmers involved in the protest, saying it showed a lack of compassion.
The KMP, meanwhile, demanded that the police lift the “martial law” conditions in North Cotabato and allow human rights groups and farmers advocates to free those who were illegally arrested and detained.
“Help us release illegally arrested farmers who are detained, help us talk to the wounded who are confined in hospitals, help us find those who are still missing,” Jerome Aba, a member of Suara Bangsamoro and survivor of the Kidapawan incident, said Wedneday.
Aba denounced what he described as “virtual martial law in North Cotabato” that prevents them from reaching and talking to victims in the hospitals and to those under police custody at the Kidapawan gym. – With Macon Ramos-Araneta, Sandy Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz