Cops open fire: 2 die in farmers’ protest

Mike Frialde - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The farmers wanted rice and drought-resistant vegetable seeds as El Niño had dried up their crops, and refused to leave the highway unless their demands were met.

As police crowd dispersal units moved in yesterday to clear the road, violence erupted. Rocks were hurled and gunfire erupted.

When the smoke cleared, a farmer lay dead, another was dying and about 30 others were wounded. Police reported that about 40 of their personnel were also injured, two of them critically.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) has launched an investigation.

For three days, no one could pass through the main highway in North Cotabato as about 6,000 farmers blocked a portion of the road, demanding government assistance after an ongoing drought ravaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland.

Then the police moved in.

“Loud bursts of gunfire erupted,” Norma Capuyan, leader of a farmer’s group told reporters. “There was heavy volume of fire. We ran to a church compound and the police surrounded us.”

A farmer died at the scene and about a dozen others were wounded in the legs and shoulders, Capuyan said.

She added that the police first tried to disperse them with water cannon, but started shooting when they held their ground.

“The PNP is consolidating all information as regards the incident... in the Cotabato-Davao Highway, Kidapawan City. We believe that, in the spirit of thoroughness and fairness, a complete and accurate narrative must be constructed,” PNP spokesman Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor said in a statement.

The dead were identified as Rogeli Daelto and Victor Lumugdang, both of Arakan municipality. The nine injured farmers were identified as Ricky Maat, Ejay Salaber, Alce Awi, Mario Ansabo, Roland Jampas, Darwin Madiao, Leo Deyong, Roger Imuy and Rodulfo Tan.

Sources from the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said that one of their senior officials in Mindanao, Sheena Duazo, was also injured in the incident, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Mayor claimed that 40 police officers were also injured after the protesters allegedly attacked the law enforcers. Two of the policemen were in critical condition.

Without any permit, the farmers allegedly converged in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato’s provincial capital. They demanded government subsidies including the 15,000 sacks of rice that North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza allegedly promised to them as relief.

They also asked for seeds of drought-resistant vegetables and other provisions to mitigate the hunger now stalking their communities because of the drought linked to El Niño. The region has been suffering from drought since late November.

The Department of Agriculture said that more than 300,000 hectares of farmland had been affected by the drought, causing losses of about P5.3 billion in rice and corn.

The Cotabato-Davao Highway was blocked after 6,000 farmers and their supporters began gathering at 6 a.m. last Wednesday. They set up barricades that blocked portions of the highway. Thousands of commuters and motorists were affected by the blockade.

Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista on Thursday said Governor Mendoza was ready to hold a dialogue the night before with the leaders of the farmers.

However, none of the protesters came to the city hall to meet the governor and discuss their demands.

How the clash started

Witnesses told reporters yesterday that the clash started when policemen and social welfare workers arrived to gather the children that were brought to the rally by some demonstrators, led by the Mindanao-based officials of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.

Local officials earlier said they received reports that communist New People’s Army rebels allegedly coerced the farmers who barricaded the highway.

There were also rumors that presidential candidate Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte would arrive and talk to the farmers.

The PNP’s Mayor said that “acting upon guidance from Governor Mendoza,” the PNP troops under Sr. Supt. Alexander Tagum conducted an operation to clear the highway in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to rescue the minors who joined the demonstration.

“But before the PNP could start their operations, the protesters attacked them with poles and pieces of wood. Large rocks were also thrown at the policemen and at the stationary fire truck deployed to the area. A commotion followed, which resulted in injuries to the policemen and rallyists. As of last count, 40 policemen have been injured, with two in critical condition due to head trauma. We are consolidating information as regards the injured and two reported casualties on the side of the rallyists. All those injured were immediately brought to nearby hospitals to receive medical care,” the PNP report said.

Mayor said several rallyists were also arrested, including an alleged commander of the NPA from Barangay Basak, Magpet, North Cotabato.

“We reiterate that our policemen are trained and instructed to always exercise maximum tolerance, while at the same time remaining vigilant so that they may respond in a calibrated manner to threats. Certain pieces of information remain conflicting. We continue to conduct an investigation to consolidate a thorough report on the incident. We request that the public approach this issue with fairness and proper discernment as we pursue the truth,” Mayor said.

The protesters, the PNP said, raised issues concerning El Niño and the non-distribution of National Food Authority (NFA) rice with the declaration of a state of calamity by the local government unit.

Mayor assured the public that any violation of the PNP’s rules and regulations will be dealt with the appropriate penalty.

“We reiterate that an investigation is ongoing. We will update the public on any findings,” he said, adding that anyone responsible for the tragic incident would be held accountable.

Palace seeks accountability

Malacañang vowed yesterday to determine accountability in the dispersal of protesting farmers in Kidapawan City.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said Interior Secretary Mel Senen Sarmiento reported that the provincial government had assumed responsibility for the law- enforcement operations related to the mass action on the Davao-Cotabato Highway.

The PNP, Coloma said, “is conducting a thorough investigation.”

“Accountability is being established and appropriate sanctions will be meted out if justified by the findings of the investigation,” Coloma said.

The United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) of Vice President Jejomar Binay condemned yesterday the violent dispersal of the farmers. 

“Vice President Jejomar Binay deplores the use of violence to disperse farmers in Kidapawan who were demanding rice from government. They were asking for rice, but they were given bullets,” UNA campaign spokesman Rico Quicho said.

“Hunger is a reality that must be addressed not by violence but by compassion and concrete programs to improve the lives of the poor,” he said.

The camp of Duterte strongly condemned the bloody dispersal.

“President Aquino cannot escape blame and responsibility for the bloody assault against the hungry farmers demanding for food after a prolonged dry spell,” said Mayor Leoncio Evasco of Maribojoc, Bohol, who is also Duterte’s campaign manager. 

“A hungry people demanding food do not deserve to be shot,” Evasco said. 

Evasco also called on government to conduct an inquiry into the incident. 

Liberal Party (LP) presidential bet Manuel Roxas II condemned the violent dispersal of protesting farmers in Kidapawan City.

“The first task of the day is to restore order in the area and make sure that no clash happens again. The wounded on either side should be tended to,” Roxas said.  

“I call on the PNP and other concerned agencies to investigate as to the true cause of the clash and, if warranted, punish those who may be accountable,” he added.

Presidential candidate Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago lambasted what she described as “inhumane” the dispersal of farmers and indigenous peoples protesting insufficient food supply in their areas.

Santiago said the government should be held accountable for the violence, adding that this violated the constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

“It is vile enough that this administration has failed to support the farmers and lumads of Kidapawan during the prolonged drought in Mindanao. But it is downright inhuman for them to shoot at the same people begging for help,” the senator said.

LP vice presidential bet and Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo said she was saddened by the incident.

“The cause of the violent incident should be investigated and those who are behind it should be held accountable,” she added.

Vice presidential candidate Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. denounced the violent dispersal of protesting farmers, saying the use of bullets was “completely unnecessary.”

“I deplore the use of bullets to answer the legitimate demands of our farmers and their families in North Cotabato. They are hungry and they are just asking for food so they can feed their families,” he said, adding that the police should have instead negotiated with the protesters.

Vice presidential bet Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano also condemned the violent dispersal of the protesting farmers and lumads.

“There is no reason in this world to shoot farmers who were merely demanding from the government help from the oppressive drought. This is totally unacceptable. This is the height of impunity,” Cayetano added.

Cayetano also said that he and his runningmate Duterte would seek justice for the farmers.

Migrante, the group of overseas Filipino workers, condemned the bloody dispersal and blamed the Aquino government’s ineptness.

The group also pressed for the filing of criminal charges against those involved in the shooting and demanded the immediate pull-out of the police in Kidapawan.

Members of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) also lambasted the Aquino government and the police for the violent incident.

KMU said Aquino and PNP officials should be held accountable for their heinous crime against the farmers and lumads.

With Aurea Calica, Perseus Echeminada, Helen Flores, Mayen Jaymalin, Rainier Allan Ronda, Alexis Romero, John Unson

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