El Nino phenomenon hits Philippines. Drought ravages lumad (indigenous peoples) farms. Lumad farmers ask help from government. Government provides assistance to farmers. Farmers no longer hungry. Farmers plant for next year’s harvest. Farmers harvest rice. Everybody eats. They live happily ever after. End of story.
Except it didn’t exactly happen that way.
On the morning of April 1, 2016 in Kidapawan City, Philippines, hundreds of members of the Philippine police and military, under orders from North Cotabato provincial Governor Emmylou Mendoza, opened fire on some 6000 lumad farmers demanding rice subsidies and other assistance from the government due to the effect of the El Nino phenomenon on their crops and other sources of livelihood. When the dust settled, three were confirmed dead, 116 were wounded (18 of them in critical condition), 89 were missing (including six minors), and two, who were arrested by police elements during the dispersal, were tortured (thank you Solidarity Action Group for Indigenous People and Peasants for the data).
By nighttime, over 4000 of the protesters had holed up at the United Methodist Church (UMC) compound in the same city. Police and military had cordoned off the area and cut off the electricity in the compound. Food, water and medicine, as well as media and other concerned groups, were refused entry. The protesters, essentially, were locked in. The wounded could not be treated due to lack of medical supplies. The protesters spent a tense and hungry night expecting a police raid. Children were crying in hunger, men and women were shaking with anger.
Come morning of April 2, the police forcibly entered the premises of the compound. They searched for guns and grenades they claimed the protesting lumad farmers possessed. To their consternation, they found none (or, much more likely, couldn’t get the chance to plant one). Because they couldn’t prove their claims regarding the firearms protesters allegedly possessed, they did the next best thing: Philippine National Police (PNP) crime laboratory “experts” released a report that one of the dead protesters tested positive for gunshot residue (naturally; they did shoot him, after all) and, in addition, they allegedly found several casings of bullets in the area the lumad farmers previously occupied before the shootout (this is also, quite incidentally, one of the very few times the PNP released crime laboratory results within 48 hours). Police are accusing the protesters of starting the incident by throwing stones at the policemen, but a video by one of the media reporters on site at the actual event belie that claim (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LTSoLh-JBc&feature=youtu.be).
For reasons unknown and quite bewildering, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary commended (read: awarded medals) the policemen who were involved in the Kidapawan massacre. These are the same policemen who used truncheons and rattan sticks and water cannons against protesters with placards and flags and bullhorns. The same policemen who rained bullets on farmers armed only with their hunger and their conviction, struggling for their right to eat, fighting for their right to live. You know there is something wrong with this country when state agents maul and shoot and kill the people they are supposed to serve and protect, and then get commended for it.
Today I got news that about 300 more farmers from the nearby town of Makilala, North Cotabato arrived at the UMC compound to show solidarity with their fellow farmers. The police responded by blocking the entrance to the compound and drawing their guns on the newcomers. Only the timely arrival of an unknown pastor prevented this event from becoming another bloodbath. The police, however, are still surrounding the compound, continually harassing the farmers still holed there. I certainly hope the police officers who were commended are darn proud of themselves, and that they don’t choke on their medals.
In a press conference, Gov. Mendoza assumed full responsibility for the incident. She also stated that she will block any and all assistance to the starving protesters from concerned groups and individuals, going so far as to say that this insults her governance. Now this is comic. Hundreds of people from outside her province are expressing support and sending donations to the starving farmers, and she blocks all the relief because she feels insulted. My dear “good” governor, had you done your job properly the last few months, helping your constituents get over the worst of the starvation and helplessness they went through, using the Php238 million calamity fund the government set aside for just this purpose, no protest would have taken place. You wouldn’t have had to threaten a UMC bishop of legal action if he would not desist from helping the protesting farmers. You would not have had to authorize the police to shoot your own constituents. You would not have had to assume responsibility for this bloody mess.
And you would not have had to look like a blood-thirsty villain in the eyes of so many of your countrymen, which you definitely are right this moment. You would not have had to look like a complete imbecile, which you definitely are right this moment. And you would not have had to feel insulted, which I fervently hope you definitely are right this moment. But then again, as a former professor of mine so explicitly stated, It’s not about you, b*%ch.
Administration presidential candidate Mar Roxas was on a campaign sortie in nearby Cagayan de Oro City when the incident happened. It was rumored that the reason for the bloody dispersal was because Roxas was coming to Kidapawan. Roxas released a four-sentence statement condemning the massacre, calling on the PNP to investigate itself. Well, of course, the police is the most impartial body to investigate a crime it committed. Yes, Mr. Roxas, that’s a very brilliant idea. (watch this video https://web.facebook.com/abner.francisco.1/videos/10154777451414922/)
Eerily silent on this issue is President Benigno Aquino III. He has not released a personal statement on the matter, nor has he expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, nor has he called off his bulldogs still encircling the farmers in Kidapwan. Of course, you really don’t expect a scion of one of the wealthiest landed families in the country to express solidarity with simple farmers. His mother didn’t do it when 13 farmers were gunned down in the 1987 Mendiola massacre during her term as president; Aquino didn’t do it when he was senator in the 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre where 14 farmers were also shot by government soldiers right at their very own backyard; he didn’t do it when government tractors were bulldozing the communal farms of peasants in the Cojuangco-Aquino estate just last week while he was watching the life and times of social justice activist Bishop Oscar Romero in his air-conditioned room in Malacanang; he hasn’t done it now and quite probably will not do it now. Mr. Aquino is quite consistent, actually. Romero would have been sick of him.
Government spokesmen, however, are again blaming the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) about what happened, claiming the CPP-NPA instigated the big protest rally. But what government officials seem to forget is that if they had been doing their job of actually helping the people and not simply sitting on their plump chairs in their posh offices, none of this would have happened. It’s easy to put blame on a bogeyman (in this instance, the CPP-NPA), it’s quite harder to own up to our shortcomings. It doesn’t take the CPP-NPA for a farmer to realize that she and her family will starve to death, literally, if she cannot ask for help from somebody. She cannot ask her neighbors, they are all in the same boat. She cannot ask her relatives; they are all farmers. It doesn’t take the CPP-NPA for a farmer to turn to her government. A government, unfortunately, that isn’t quite as enthusiastic to ease her suffering, with government officials who promise the sun, the moon and the stars when election time draws near (as is the case now), yet meet her with violence when time comes that she asks them to make good on their promise.
This is the Philippines, where every year the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is the Philippines, where the inept and corrupt are in government, and the people are trampled on. This is the Philippines, where those who swore to serve and protect indiscriminately kill those they have sworn to serve and protect, and are commended for it. This is the Philippines, where those who plant the food we eat are the same ones who cannot eat the food they plant.
This is the Philippines, where happy endings are a long time coming.
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For those who would like to make donations to the victims of the Kidapawan Massacre and the drought in North Cotabato, please see the details below:
My thanks to Inday Espina-Varona for the inspiration. Pictures from Contend UP, Kilab Multimedia, Pinoy Weekly, CNN.