WITH blood on its hands, the Aquino administration is blaming leftists for the death of three farmers in Kidapawan City Friday, but no amount of spin can justify the act of armed police firing their M-16 rifles into a crowd of unarmed protesters.
The farmers, suffering from drought and government inaction, had blockaded the Cotabato-Davao highway since Wednesday to dramatize their plight and to prod the government into helping them. The protest in front of the National Food Authority warehouse stranded hundreds of vehicles and commuters on both sides of the 220-kilometer freeway connecting Cotabato and Davao.
Their demands could hardly be considered excessive: 15,000 sacks of rice for as many starving families to tide them over the long dry spell. After all, a basic duty of government is to come to the aid of those suffering from natural calamities, such as drought.
But to hear the protesters tell it, the government has done precious little in the last five months to help farmers in Cotabato province, which has been suffering from drought brought about by the El Niño phenomenon since November 2015. To date, crop damage has been estimated at more than P1 billion—and farmers and their families are starving.
None of this seemed to matter, however, to local officials who negotiated with the farmers, or to the national government that could not be bothered to get involved.
By Friday, Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista declared that the farmers had had “enough time” to air their grievances, and said they needed to clear the highway because businesses in the area were suffering from the blockade.
The first provocation, witnesses agree, came from the local government, which sent in social workers to “rescue” women and children who had joined the protest.
But the women and children at the picket line were not there against their will—and would not have needed “rescuing” had the authorities not intended to use force to break up the protest.
Police with shields and batons moved into the crowd, which pushed back. Protesters were beaten with truncheons; some fought back with their fists and rocks. Amid the chaos, police with M-16 rifles fired on the farmers, killing three of them, and wounding many others.
The protesters fled to a nearby Methodist Church, which has since been surrounded by soldiers and police, with a warning from the mayor that they would be arrested if they set foot outside the church.
Is this the way this government “rescues” those in need? The hungry farmers wanted rice, but this government fed them bullets instead. Instead of expressing regret at the deaths, this government surrounded the church and threatened the farmers with arrest.
In the aftermath of the bloody dispersal, the police said lab tests had shown that one of the dead farmers had gunpowder residue on his hand, and that a .45-cal. gun was found near his body. The findings were neither surprising—nor particularly credible, since we have no reason to believe that police who condone the firing M-16 rifles at civilian protesters are also capable of conducting an honest and independent investigation of their own men. The hasty findings scream cover-up.
Why, we are compelled to ask, did the Department of Interior and Local Government rush to pin medals on the Kidapawan police involved just one day after the bloody dispersal, before a credible and thorough investigation could clear them of wrongdoing?
Declarations from the national government supported the accusation from North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza and the mayor of Kidapawan City that the farmers had been infiltrated by communists.
A spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III blamed leftist groups for ferrying in supporters and said that those manning the barricades were not even residents of North Cotabato and were brought onto the scene for propaganda purposes.
“Have you realized who can summon thousands of farmers from outside North Cotabato and linger there for several days? Who feeds them on a daily basis? …The leftists have been at this game for the longest time,” the spokesman said on his Facebook page.
But the presidential spokesman, Governor Mendoza and Mayor Evangelista need to be reminded that none of their arguments justifies the use of lethal force on civilian protesters assembling peacefully to seek redress of grievances. The last time we looked, that is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. And if leftist groups had, in fact, fed the hungry farmers, that is one thing more than this government has ever done.