"They came with an intent to kill."
Jerome Succor Aba said elite cops, armed to the teeth, were present from Day 1 of the Kidapawan protests by hungry farmers.
They were there, he said, atop the fire trucks, just behind the police lines. They had M-16 and M-14 rifles. They would pan the crowd and then stop at certain faces, peering through the sight barrels of their rifles or their binoculars.
From Day 1, Aba said, negotiators appealed with Cotabato provincial police director Superintendent Alexander Tagum to pull out the armed cops.
Tagum told them not to tell him how to do this job. They appealed with Kidapawan Mayor Joseph Bautista. He waved off their complaints.
Six thousand hungry farmers arrived in Kidapawan on March 30, forming a human barricade across the national highway.
The farmers were hungry; their plants had withered due to the El Nino drought that started last year.
As early as February, newspapers were reporting of an exodus from farmlands to the cities.
There was no hope of squeezing anything out of the parched earth. Farmers were going mad with grief. Women were forced to traffic themselves to save their children.
The reports quoted local agriculture officials. They came out with a regularity only topped by the television ads of candidates – each discounted 15-seconder the equivalent of P400 sacks of the cheaper rice variety.
Less than crumbs
Darwin Sulang, 22, of Arakan town, came to the barricade with relatives. None of the family thought they would face bullets simply because of a demand for food. None of them thought of death.
The governor of Cotabato, Emily Mendoza, initially refused to talk to protesters. When she did, it was with an offer that was less than crumbs.
Six thousand farmers were asking for 15,000 sacks of rice for their communities. The province has an approved calamity fund of more than P300 million. Mendoza told them, go home and you get 3 kilos per quarter.
A family of four or five people consumes a kilo of rice a day. A sack of rice has 50 kilos. The total ask was for 750,000 kilos.
If all went to only those protesting, it would come to 125 kilos per person – four months worth of rice, just enough for when, the heavens willing, for one plant-harvest cycle.
These people had kin and neighbors they would be sharing the rice with.
Most Cotabato farmers are peasants, many of them landless. They try to tide over their families by working as agricultural workers in bigger farms.
Peasants count among the poorest of Filipinos. Bereft of credit, stuck in backwaters far from market places, they are at the mercy of middlemen, the polite term for usurers who triple their profits with trading.
They borrow to purchase inputs for farms. They barely earn to pay off debts. They hire themselves as labor to put food on the family table.
One bad crop, one sickness in the family, and they go under. It is a tale as old as the Marcos dictatorship, at least. The song “Tano” tells exactly that story: A small farmer with a piece of land, pawns it when a child falls ill, interest the value of the principal, payable come harvest time. And then a storm comes. He loses the land, his debt remains.
“If we are still alive,” lumad leader Merceditha Iyong says, “it is because we live on debts. We do not know how we can pay these back.”
When protesters refused to go home, the harassment began.
“They came past midnight, disturbing protesters rest till morning with loudspeakers issuing threats, for us to go home of face arrest,” said Aba. “They told us we would starve on the barricades."
“For two days, plainclothes intelligence agents would grab whoever rallyist they could, and haul them off to jail,” he said.
Local government officials started coming in, talking to constituents, telling them to come home, on free transportation, and get the rice waiting for them.
The few who took up the offer ended up at the provincial jail, Aba said.
On April 1, another round of negotiations. Protesters told cops they would speak only with Gov. Mendoza, who had been stumping around with Liberal Party standard-bearer Mar Roxas.
Word finally came that she was willing to meet them later in the day. But shortly past 10 am, mayhem broke out.
You will see Aba in the videos taken by Kilab Multimedia. He stands between protesters and cops, the last of the negotiators to leave. He takes a dive backwards soon after, to rescue another negotiator, Bai Ali, who’d been hit by a baton.
Protesters fought back. They threw rocks. Cops threw rocks. The protesters managed to “capture” one fire truck and trained the water canon back at cops.
That, Aba said, was then the shooting started. A quick three shots, and then quicker bursts of fire.
As Aba was pulling Bai Ali to safety, a farmer beside him took a shot in the head. Another in the leg.
Some rushed to say their fellow negotiator, Sheena, had been hit by a rock. The rushed across the street even with bullets buzzing around them. Another farmer fell.
“Bai Ali wanted to go and rescue him (farmer),” Aba said. “But I had to pull her to safety because the bullets were raining so fast.”
Media footage show cops chasing after fleeing protesters, rifles aimed at their backs. Cops are thrown beating up arrested rallyists. On the other side, protesters caught hold of at least one rock-throwing cop and then trampled him. At least one cop is in a coma. Three protesters are dead.
Journalists, international rights groups, even state human rights officials have all said it is illegal to bring guns, weapons that can kill to mass actions. It is illegal to fire warning shots. It is certainly illegal -- in any democratic country -- to shoot at escaping civilian protesters.
To that and to the very important question -- how could officials shrug off the reality of hunger -- the government has had no genuine answers. If defends the indefensible with an old, old trick -- taken right out of the Marcosian rulebook: Blame the communist.
Unfortunately for Aquino's government, people would happily risk that tag to help the farmers. Compassion, after all, knows no color.
Read: A Black Hole for A Heart
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.