MANILA – Both the national government and the local government of North Cotabato blamed protesters for the bloody clashes with police forces in Kidapawan, North Cotabato yesterday, saying leftist groups were using farmers as pawns in their attempt to put the government in a bad light.
On the other hand, leaders of militant groups that provided support to farmers who blocked Kidapawan City's national highway earlier this week, said the government was solely to blame for what happened.
Bayan Muna senatorial aspirant Neri Colmenares and Kabataan Party-list Rep. Terry Ridon criticized the government for allegedly not addressing the demand of hungry El Niño-hit farmers that they be given rice.
"The harassment of the protesting farmers continue until now. We witnessed first-hand how combined elements of the police and the military continue to threaten the security and life of the crowd gathered here in Kidapawan. We in the Makabayan bloc will exhaust all means to bring justice to the perpetrators of the massacre and hold accountable everyone involved in this bloody episode," Ridon said.
"Ano pa bang hinihintay ng gobyerno? Na mas marami pa ang mamatay? Na maulit ang massacre? Congress allotted billions of pesos for the calamity fund to serve in situations like this. Why do we need to end up in a dire situation wherein hungry farmers asking for food are instead fed bullets?"
A Palace official questioned the motive of the people behind the rally, saying leftist leaders had "primed'' themselves for the protest action in order to ''create a blot on the image of the administration."
''First out to frame the whole situation was of course the militant groups who immediately came out with statements who flooded the social media with photos and immediately had a party line at a time and this is something I believe everyone should reflect on. Alam niyo naman pag may nangyaring insidente na hindi kanais-nais, it really takes time to find out what on earth happened and why did it happened. If you suddenly, out there, all prepped with common talking points, selectively picked images then you have to start wondering medyo primed sila for this,'' said Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III.
''It would definitely be in the political interest and this is very -- there's no other word for it -- it's a very shameful thing to do. But it would definitely be in the political interest of some people to try to create a blot on the image of the administration, particularly when it has tried to do so much for farmers and for the citizens at large."
At least two people were killed in Friday's clashes between police and around 5,000 drought-hit farmers and activists demanding 15,000 sacks of rice from the government.
"We asked for rice. Instead, they gave us bullets," protest leader Norma Capuyan, who witnessed the melee, told AFP.
"The farmers are starving because they have nothing to eat. We went there looking for a solution."
The Philippines has been gripped by a strong El Niño dry spell since December which has hit food production, particularly in the conflict-wracked south which is home to the country's poorest and where more than half of the population is reliant on agriculture.
Panicked protesters picked their bloodied comrades from the highway and treated their wounds by the roadside as they were sprayed with water from firetrucks, Capuyan said.
"Everyone was angry. The police were hitting us. It was a real commotion," Capuyan said, adding that the rallyists had left the highway and retreated to a nearby church.
Capuyan claimed 116 protesters were wounded while 89 others were missing. The two gunshot fatalities were male farmers in their 40s, she said.
Quezon, citing a report from a local radio station in Kidapawan City, said the protesters were the first to throw rocks at policemen.
''And this is what has to be investigated, alam mo naman, especially under a tragic situation where everyone is really heartbroken over what has happened. Kakalat ang bintang, misinformation, agenda setting at bigla na lang maraming makiki-ride doon sa issue. Lahat ng bagay na 'yun hindi nakakatulong sa mga nasaktan at namatay,'' Quezon said.
North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Mendoza also accused the protesters of starting the violence. She said the protesters managed to secure a permit to rally for one day, Monday, but decided to extend their activity for days.
Mendoza added the protesters were up to something other than their getting their demand for rice. She said the local government tried to talk to the protesters but these efforts were made futile.
''Itong mga pagtitipon na ito ng more than 4,000 na tao ay nakakapagtaka. Bakit sila nag-gather ng ganong kadami, iyun pala may reinforcements na,'' she said in an interview on dzMM.
''Napaka-organisado ng rally, kaya pala hindi namin makausap, kahit na nag-dadayalogo kami parang walang nangyayari kasi napakarami ng personalidad at grupo dito sa rally."
Quezon also noted the presence of militant groups in the rally, as evidenced by placards which voiced anger against government programs opposed by the left.
''Yung mga shield na dala nila ang mga nakasulat doon 'Batugan ng Oplan Bayanihan'... And you have to wonder and this is just a question because nandoon 'yung litrato e. Anong koneksyon ng Oplan Bayanihan sa hinaing ng mga magsasaka? And when you look at the video this is -- handa sila e. You can't avoid the fact na nandoon 'yung mga shield at ito 'yung ginamit and then nagsimula ang batuhan,'' he said.
''Of course, every human rights group and not just every human rights group of whatever color but every decent Filipino will want an investigation and deserves to get the results of a thorough investigation."
Quezon said the farmers had been advised to coordinate with their respective barangays so they could avail of the cash-for-work program but this did not convince some to vacate the road.
''Ang mga nanatili hindi natin alam kung saan galing. Now the fact is, na bakit umabot sa batuhan, bakit -- lalo na kung may rasonableng solusyon at rasonable at talagang totoong sagot sa mga hinaing ng mga magsasaka. Bakit pa nanatili at umabot sa punto na kailangan i-clear,'' he said.
PNP: SLAIN PROTESTER WAS ARMED
Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor, spokesperson of the Philippine National Police, on Saturday said the paraffin test on one of the slain protesters yielded a positive result.
Mayor said the Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) team also recovered 2 empty shells of caliber.45 at the area previously occupied by the protesters and a deformed slug of caliber.38 at a makeshift station previously occupied by the police.
There were 99 injured PNP personnel, and one is still in critical condition, he said.
But Ridon cast doubt over the result of the police investigation.
"The crime lab results are a farce and should not be given any ounce of credibility, as we cannot expect the PNP to deliver an honest and independent finding on the conduct of their men and the incident itself,'' Ridon said.
"It should be noted that the PNP took custody of the dead bodies, and cordoned the scene of the massacre. This has given them all the opportunity to plant all evidence on the dead, such as the nearby .45 pistol and nitrates on fingers."
DUTERTE ACCUSED OF POLITICIZING INCIDENT
Actor-TV host Robin Padilla, a supporter of presidential aspirant Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, donated on Saturday 200 sacks of rice to drought-hit farmers.
In photos taken by Kilab Multimedia, the 46-year-old Padilla is seen sympathizing with the farmers.
Padilla expressed his disgust over the incident.
"Ang mga magsasaka ng Inangbayan Pilipinas, pinagbabaril sa kanilang mapayapang paghingi ng tulong sa kanilang gobyerno," he wrote on his Instagram account as the caption to a photo of an injured farmer.
Mendoza said the visit to the province of Padilla and another Duterte ally, former North Cotabato Governor Manny Piñol, was an insult to her government.
''Nakaka-insulto kasi hindi kami nagkulang dito ng tulong. Iyung aming mga mayors, namigay ng relief goods. Kung gusto talaga tumulong ng mga kandidato, sana nung Martes pa, nagpaabot sila. Kung kilala nila ang mga ralyista na ito, sana sumali sila sa dayalogo. Hindi itong pagkatapos na,'' she said.
''Hindi sagot dito ang bigas. Hindi issue sa North Cotabato ang bigas. May bigas kami, may calamity fund kami. Huwag sana kaming gamitin sa propaganda, sa pulitika, kasi nagtatrabaho kami ng seryoso. Insulto sa amin na bibigyan kami ng bigtas dito."
Quezon also singled out the camp of the Davao City mayor for allegedly politicizing the incident.
''The statements of this presidential candidate has been completely incendiary, talagang below-the-belt, very personal, very targeted to the sentiments of -- not even of the farmers but those militant groups that involved themselves in the farmers' plight,'' he said.
''And, of course, we're referring to Mayor Duterte and we have to ask ourselves, was he acting in an irresponsible manner? Or is it a manner that is calculated simply to engage the support of those who are also answerable for the behavior of their cadres in the protest."
Quezon noted that based on records of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), a total of 125,228 families or 626,140 persons have been affected by El Niño in Region 12 [South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos], and in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
''The DSWD has provided funds to all its FOs [Field Offices] amounting to P133,426,000 and so forth, including funds to maintain and complete the required or standard stockpiled 30,000-families food pack and initial assistance for the cash-for-work program,'' he said.
Quezon said the DSWD delivered 3,300 family food packs to its satellite office in Kidapawan City for distribution to the affected families on April 1, and another 2,700 family food packs were scheduled to be delivered on April 2.
CHR PROBES INCIDENT
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), meanwhile, has deployed a fact-finding team to investigate the dispersal of the farmers' protest.
CHR chairperson Chito Gascon believes authorities overlooked crowd dispersal protocols, given the use of live ammunition during the dispersal.
He added they will look at what prompted authorities to fire shots and how to improve crowd-dispersal efforts in the future.
"It appears in this instance that while you had the police enforcers with their shield, there were also police personnel with full arms and live ammunition so we need to understand why that was decided on," Gascon said.
"The video themselves show that early on, live bullets were utilized, this is something we need to get to the bottom of, why was this part of the plan for crowd dispersal management? This isn't a criminal law enforcement operation, it involves farmers who are mobilizing, demanding for services," he added. - with AFP