The violent clash between policemen and protesters in Kidapawan City on April 1 showed detestable weaknesses in governance at both the local and national levels on one hand and the uncalled for aggressiveness of militants on the other.
It showed as well the quick reactionary response by politicians and some media men to condemn and pass around unverified information to score political points and be counted in social media hashtags.
An investigation is, of course, in order not only to determine who instigated the violence but also to pinpoint accountabilities. More importantly, the cry of the legitimate farmers needs to be addressed right away
It was unfortunate that the incident happened on April Fool’s Day, a day when it was all right to play practical jokes and tricks. Having two deaths and more than a hundred injured protesters and policemen is no joke. But it looks like some of the protesters were tricked into joining the assembly, if a video clip that was going viral were to be believed. That ought to be looked into.
Were it not because of the bloody dispersal on April 1, would politicians vying for votes pay attention to the protest march, which, according to reports, began on Wednesday, March 30? Where were they before April 1? Aren’t they also government officials who have been campaigning on government time and resources?
We have been getting conflicting and confusing reports on the incident.
The dispersal happened on the third day that an estimated 3,000 protesters blocked the Davao-Cotabato Highway. Some estimates put the crowd at 5,000, but video footages of the dispersal showed less than 1,000 people being driven away. According to the police, the protesters’ permit to rally lapsed on Friday morning.
The PNP justified the decision to disperse with an assessment that the protesters’ presence on the major highway “continued to disrupt public movement in one of the major transportation arteries of Mindanao.”
Upon “guidance” from the governor, the local police moved to disperse the crowd at past 10 a.m. Friday and coordinated with the Department of Social Welfare and Development “to rescue minors who were part of the picket line,” the PNP said.
The protesters were demanding immediate release of government assistance in the wake of the effects of drought in the area. They said they had been experiencing severe hunger because of the drought affecting their crops.
A resident named Mara Mangutlapig narrated in a social media post that some of them gave bread and water to the protesters but that they became suspicious when the number of people grew, with others reportedly coming from places outside North Cotabato.
Reports said the protest brought together farmers, members of indigenous groups, and other cause-oriented groups. Some reports said it was infiltrated by left-leaning groups because the protesters carried placards bearing anti-militarization messages.
Reports said some protesters came from Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Bukidnon and Sultan Kudarat.
From social media, a local journalist posted that the farmers who joined the protest were from the hinterland towns with watershed areas from where springs and rivers were still flowing downstream, and not from the first district of North Cotabato with lowland rice fields that were harshly affected by the drought.
“North Cotabato is so small compared to Maguindanao and the adjoining South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Sarangani provinces in Region 12 where farmers have also been suffering from the effects of the dry spell since late Nov. 2015, but they are just there in their farms, propagating drought-tolerant crops. There is, in fact, big harvest surplus now of watermelons, na sa gilid na ng highway naka-display at less than P20 a kilo, and fresh vegetables can still be seen displayed at the markets in these provinces. At ganun did sila sa North Cotabato,” John Felix Miciano Unson wrote on Facebook.
Mindanews reported that “North Cotabato’s Crop Damage Report Summary as of Feb. 17 listed 36,915 farmers affected by the drought, mostly corn, rice, rubber and coconut farmers.” The province has been under a state of calamity on Jan. 19.
From other accounts, it was also pointed out that the protest coincided with the founding anniversary of the New People’s Army (NPA). Giving credence to the claim of infiltration by communist groups, PNP Spokesperson Wilben Mayor said an NPA from Magpet town was among the 78 or so arrested protesters.
Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista said the farmers demanded that North Cotabato Gov. Emylou Taliño-Mendoza release 15,000 sacks of rice to them, but she reportedly refused to talk to them.
Another report said Mendoza and other mayors from the province talked with the protesters, prompting some of them to disperse and head back to their communities.
Militant groups were quick to report that the policemen fired shots at the farmers, who were merely asking for rice, hence, the social media hashtag #BigasHindiBala. Some claimed that bullets rained on the protesters, but a video of the dispersal that I viewed showed the protesters raining stones on the policemen. Some policemen also picked up stones and threw them at the protesters. Water from three or four fire trucks pushed back the protesters.
From the side of the PNP, it was reported that the two fatalities from the ranks of the protesters died not of bullet wounds. But a photograph of a wounded protester showed a bullet wound on his thigh, so shots must have indeed been fired. It was, however, an exaggeration to say that bullets rained on the protesters.
The PNP said 40 policemen were injured from the incident, with two of them in critical condition due to head trauma. It was, however, too insensitive for the PNP to give awards to those on the frontline even before a credible investigation of the incident.
The militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said in a press statement that “shots from M-16 rifles were allegedly fired.”
The PNP, for its part, claimed the protesters attacked them with poles and pieces of wood, and rocks were thrown at the policemen, and at the stationary fire truck deployed to the area before they launched the dispersal.
With video footages and photos coming out, it should be established where the shots came, and identify those who picked up and threw stones.
It is too easy and convenient to condemn and point fingers whenever incidents like the April 1 Kidapawan clash happen, especially at this time when politicking is cheap.
One farmer’s death is one too many. Any form of violence must be condemned. But we ought to know what really happened, and if the protesters were legitimate farmers. Government must be quick but it should also make sure that the taxes we pay will go to the right persons who genuinely need help.