KIDAPAWAN CITY (2nd UPDATE) - Two farmers protesting the alleged lack of assistance from the local government died during a violent dispersal at the national highway in Kidapawan City, Cotabato province on Friday morning, local health officials said.
One of the fatalities died after bring struck on the head with a rock while the second fatality died of heat stroke, according to provincial health officer Dr. Eva Rabaya.
More than 100 others were injured, according to the North Cotabato health department. It said 93 of the injured were from the Philippine National Police while 23 others were from the side of farmers and militants who barricaded the national highway for three days to demand the release of 15,000 sacks of rice subsidy after their crops failed amid the worsening El Niño in the province.
Despite negotiations, the farmers stood firm on their ground, which prompted authorities to conduct dispersal operations Friday.
Kidapawan police said 45 people are now under their custody.
North Cotabato police provincial director Senior Superintendent Alex Tagum said in a text message that the farmers will be temporarily held under police custody. He did not say if they were formally arrested.
Meanwhile, the thousands of farmers who participated in the protest are now seeking refuge at a Methodist Church center in Kidapawan.
One of them is Junjun Gumay, a farmer from Magpet town. He said they have no plans of going home unless they get the rice subsidy from the provincial government.
"Bigas lang naman ang kailangan namin. Bakit kailangan magbuwis ng buhay? Kung gagawin ulit nila yun lalaban pa rin kami," said Gumay.
Arlene Amar, a farmer from Arakan, said they left their homes in the mountains just to ask for rice.
"Gusto namin ipakita na kailangan namin ng tulong. May karapatan kaming humingi ng tulong. Iniwan namin ang mga anak namin sa bundok kasi wala na makain," said Amar.
As farmers take their rest in the religious center, a PNP team continues to secure the area.
CHURCH LEADERS CONDEMN INCIDENT
Leaders coming from the Roman Catholic, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and Iglesia Filipina Independiente visited the Methodist center in Kidapawan late Friday afternoon.
Bishop Redeemer Yanez, Jr. of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente said the incident was an unfortunate one for the farmers who only want food.
"Nakakalungkot para sa simbahan itong nangyari na ang bigas naging bala. Alam namin na talaga gutom ang mga taong ito dahil matagal nang nararanasan ang drought dito sa probinsiya," said Yanez.
Many of the farmers who joined the barricade were members of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.
Ariel Casilaw, 1st nominee of Anakpawis Partylist, said the provincial government of North Cotabato went beyond its mandate in using excessive force.
He was also dismayed with North Cotabato Governor Lala Talino Mendoza.
"Maraming rally sa ibang lugar hindi ganito. Walang baril, bala na ginagamit. Tapos sinasabi nila maximum tolerance? May tinatago palang pagiging diktatoryal si governor, dati naman nakakausap siya ng maayos."
Ongoing talks are being facilitated by the government officials of North Cotabato to resolve the issue.