SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Mass protests are meant to provoke a response from authorities, so yes, government security forces were provoked by the farmers who had staged a sit-in last week along the main highway in Kidapawan, North Cotabato.

The test for state forces is how they respond to provocation. Cops are only human, and when they are ganged up on and beaten and pelted with rocks and bottles, they tend to retaliate with equal vehemence.

What prompted the protesters’ violence will be the subject of an investigation. Initial unconfirmed reports said the cops had tried to separate some children from the protesters, apparently in preparation for dispersal operations.

If this story is true, whoever gave that order must be sacked. Whether or not the children were being used as human shields, only Nazis and other lowlifes separate kids from their parents or guardians.

By now all cops should also be aware of Rule No. 1 in crowd control: don’t carry guns. Or at least keep the weapons hidden, especially in this age of smartphones with high-resolution cameras and video.

Video footage and photos show the crowd dispersal teams in Kidapawan carrying not just handguns but rifles. In the absence of any cop with a gun wound or photo showing the protesters similarly armed, we are now told that one of the two (the protesters say three) slain farmers tested positive in a paraffin test.

Are the cops implying that the farmer also fired a gun and therefore deserved to die? This line is adding insult to a tragedy and should be dropped immediately by daang matuwid. Paraffin tests are notoriously unreliable; if you have held a cigarette or touched the soil, which is what farmers normally do, you will test positive for nitrites and nitrates.

The Philippine National Police also reported recovering spent shells in the area occupied by the protesters. Again, in the absence of visual evidence, and given the track record of the PNP, the suspicion is that the cops did some farming of their own and planted the shells.

* * *

President Aquino should let another agency, possibly the Department of Justice, investigate this case. Or he may form an independent panel to conduct a probe. Any conclusion reached by the PNP in its internal probe can be submitted to the DOJ or the independent panel, and considered as one version of what happened.

An impartial probe is needed if the administration doesn’t want to create martyrs out of the slain farmers and fuel agrarian unrest. Farmers have a long list of legitimate grievances, and now they have a rallying point.

Placed on the defensive, daang sarado is saying the protest by farmers and lumad or indigenous tribal folk was infiltrated by militants and was politically instigated. Maybe it’s true, but P-Noy should also wonder if legitimate grievances make farmers and lumads vulnerable to such instigation.

Somewhere in his haciendero heart, P-Noy should wonder why people including their children would be willing to sit for three days on a highway, exposed to the elements, baking in the noonday summer heat, just to demand that the government make good on its promised assistance of 15,000 sacks of rice and drought-resistant vegetable seeds to tide them over during El Niño.

Maybe the farmers and lumads were exploited by the communists and other groups. But insurgencies thrive on legitimate grievances. We should wonder why we have the world’s longest running communist insurgency, with the New People’s Army (NPA) last week turning 47.

* * *

In Metro Manila, the crowd control cops were fully prepared for any provocation during the mass actions expected to mark the NPA anniversary.

The PNP in fact bent over backwards in observing maximum tolerance as NPA members and sympathizers marched bearing anti-everything streamers. The marchers covered their faces as they extolled their dearly departed led by Rogelio “Ka Roger” Rosal. Perhaps they didn’t want to be recognized as the bombers of power transmission and telecommunications towers and raiders of police outposts. Some of them may be among those who extort “revolutionary taxes” – one of the top disincentives to investments and a cause of joblessness, underdevelopment and poverty in the countryside.

The Metro Manila cops were in crowd control gear: shields, helmets with face guards, truncheons. But they did the sensible thing, which was to let the protesters blow off steam and then fade away, just like the communist ideology has faded away worldwide. Even the costumes and clenched fists have become an anachronism – red shirts and olive green Mao caps are no longer de rigueur even in the land of Mao Zedong.

The situation in Kidapawan was of course different; a major highway connecting Davao and Cotabato had been blocked and had to be cleared.

Having covered the police beat for four years, I know that crowd control duty is one of the assignments least liked by cops. They must assemble hours before the actual event and may spend a few more hours standing around doing nothing except swelter in the heat or get drenched in the rain. The cops know they are putting themselves in harm’s way and could face a human rights complaint in case things go wrong.

Still, you wonder why water cannons weren’t used for dispersal in Kidapawan. Even tear gas would have been better than guns. Or better yet, why didn’t the government just release the 15,000 sacks of rice, with the condition being that the road blockade be lifted? That’s just three sacks of rice for each of the estimated 5,000 protesters.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development has acknowledged that El Niño is wreaking havoc in several areas, destroying crops and livelihoods. The DSWD reported that so far it has provided assistance to 125,000 families – about half a million individuals – affected by the drought in the Cotabato provinces, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao.

That’s the injustice of extreme poverty aggravated by nature. Video footage of the Kidapawan protest has been uploaded on YouTube. Even shorn of the slick militant propaganda, the video shows key portions of what happened: the protesters wanted food, and instead they got bullets.

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