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STREETWISE: #BigasHindiBala by Carol Pagaduan-Araullo

(Photo from Kilab Multimedia)

Streetwise

The violent dispersal by the police of the 6000-strong protest by farmers and lumad (indigenous people of Mindanao) in Kidapawan, North Cotobato last April 1 could be dismissed as just another incident in the long list of clashes between state security forces and citizens airing their grievances against government.

But this is different. This has the potential to explode in the face not just of Liberal Party Governor Lala Talino-Mendoza and the local police but that of the lame-duck President Benigno Aquino III and his anointed one, presidential candidate Mar Roxas, barely six weeks before the national and local elections on May 9.

The farmers were demanding rice and the release of calamity funds in the wake of the severe drought in their farm lands wrought by the El Niño weather disturbance. They were met with truncheons, bullets and water cannon. The result, as of this writing: three protesters confirmed killed by gun shot, more than a hundred wounded, scores arrested and hundreds more still under siege by the police in a Methodist church compound where they sought sanctuary.

There is no disputing that the farmers had a legitimate reason for massing up on the national highway to dramatize their plight and to force government to act. Hunger stalked their families and their situation had become increasingly desperate with their farms reduced to scorched earth. They were already deep in debt because of their failed harvest and had no money to buy food. There was hardly any relief in sight despite the provincial government’s declaration of a state of calamity.

In response Gov. Mendoza reportedly announced that the farmers would be rationed three kilos of rice each for three months. (Of course, their status as her “legitimate“ constituents would still have to be verified.) Having exercised “maximum tolerance” of the farmers’ protest, she then ordered the police to clear the highway of demonstrators purportedly to restore law and order and to “rescue” the children that the farmers had brought along since no one would be left to look after them in their homes.

The result was a massacre akin to the massacre of peasants demanding land reform during the administration of the first Aquino president, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino. It also brought back memories of the Hacienda Luisita massacre when sugar mill and plantation workers in the Cojuangco-owned hacienda were killed while demanding higher wages and genuine land reform. The hashtag #BigasHindiBala (#RiceNotBullets) captures the farmers’ demands amidst the government’s resort to fascist state violence.

All the presidential candidates condemned the violence that had taken place in Kidapawan and the resulting deaths and injuries. Notably four “presidentiables” – Senator Grace Poe, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Mayor Jejomar Binay and Senator Miriam Defensor – explicitly condemned the use of deadly force by the police and called for punishment of those responsible. They also castigated the Aquino administration for failing to provide timely and adequate relief to the distressed farmers considering that the severe drought and its effects on agriculture had been predicted for more then two years by the government weather agency.

Aquino’s candidate Mar Roxas, however, could only condemn the violence that attended the protests in general, without specifying who was responsible. Roxas also called on the Philippine National Police to investigate, a surefire formula for a whitewash, as had happened in all the violent dispersals at demonstrations that had previously taken place.

Neither did he take the pertinent government agencies (such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Social Work and Community Development) and his Liberal Party-mate Gov. Mendoza to task for failing to proactively address the farmer’s plight. To do so would be to criticize the kind of governance he has extolled as exemplary and which he has promised to continue should he win.

Mayor Duterte went the extra mile by mobilizing the people of Davao and the city government to collect and send sacks of rice to Kidapawan. It is said that Senator Poe also quietly mobilized her supporters to send their contribution as did private individuals such as film actor Robin Padilla.

These humanitarian acts however did not sit well with Gov. Mendoza as she denounced them as “insulting” (to whom we wonder, certainly not to the starving farmers and lumad) and motivated by “politicking” (referring to Mayor Duterte who the governor accused of trying to look good at her – and we suppose her presidential candidate’s – expense).

President Aquino has chosen to remain silent on the Kidapawan crisis but police statements as well as that of Communications Undersecretary Manolo Quezon a day after the massacre indicates what the official line will be.

First, that the protesters rained rocks on the police and the police were only forced to respond. (Quezon is silent about why police were armed with high-powered rifles and were seen on video footage to be aiming and shooting at the farmers.)

Second, that “militant groups of the Left” were the ones who had mobilized the farmers which makes the protest suspect. (Quezon conveniently glosses over the fact that such organizations had been openly, consistently and yes, militantly, been supporting farmers on such issues as landlessness, government neglect of calamity victims and militarization of rural communities leading to grave human rights violations. That they were visibly supporting the farmers at the Kidapawan protest is nothing new nor sinister except to government officials who would resort to red-baiting to shift attention and blame from themselves.)

Third, that initial police investigation indicated the presence of armed men among the protesters proof of which is the alleged finding of traces of gunpowder on the hands of one of the dead farmers. Police also intimated to media that an NPA commander had been arrested but would not give any name. Quezon for his part mentioned “cadres” in the protest to lend credence to his claim that Leftists were behind the protests and the ensuing violence. (If indeed the protesters were armed why did not a single policeman suffer any gunshot wounds? Moreover, the police search of the Methodist church compound did not come up with any guns or deadly weapons. In fact the farmers’ feared that these would be planted by the police and would be used in trumped-up charges against them.)

We can only conclude that the official cover-up has begun. Together with a completely made-up police version of what happened and manufactured ”evidence” to support it, Malacañang spin-masters are already resorting to red-baiting, victim-blaming, and opposition candidate-bashing to cover up the underlying cause of the Kidapawan massacre.

It is nothing less than a government run by bureaucrat capitalists whose main purpose in life is to promote their own interests and those of the entrenched elite – mainly big landlords and comprador capitalists – against the interests, rights and welfare of the majority of the Filipino people especially landless and destitute farmers.#

(The second of this column’s two-part series on the Philippine health care system has been set aside in consideration of the more pressing issue of the Kidapawan massacre.)

Published in Business World
4 April 2016