MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang on Saturday, April 2, promised an “impartial and thorough investigation of the Kidapawan incident in North Cotabato, as it maintained that no one “must die” for seeking government help.
Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III, head of the Presidential Communications Development and Stategic Planning Office, made the statement in an interview on dzRB, in response to questions about the clash between police and farmers reeling from El Niño, which left two dead and over a hundred injured on Friday, April 1.
“It is fair for all of us to expect and require thorough, impartial investigation. There is no reason why people must die in order to be asking for assistance from their own government,” Quezon said.
The Palace official described the incident as a “very, very heartbreaking tragedy” as it highlighted the plight of farmers.
“Our farmers deserved better than to have to suffer to receive assistance and aid. All the more so because the assistance and aid is there, they have to go through the process and this is really, this compounds the tragedy,” Quezon said.
Quezon also appealed to the public not to “rush into judgment” pending the investigation. “Lives have been lost and we owe it to ourselves as a society and to the farmers themselves and people in the affected areas to find out what exactly happened and why it did lead to this.”
He said the investigation should include video footage taken by various groups, especially news organizations on the scene, as this would help re-create the situation that led to the tragedy, and pinpoint responsibility. (READ: Beyond the noise: Establishing facts, accountability in Kidapawan)
“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.
(Especially under a tragic situation where everyone is really heartbroken over what has happened, there will be blame-tossing, misinformation, agenda-setting and there will be many who will ride on the issue. This would not help [give justice] to those who were hurt, who died.)
Asked whether President Benigno Aquino III will issue a statement on the incident, Quezon said the Chief Executive will likely err on the side of prudence and speak only after he gets the investigation findings.
“What he has never done is rush to judgment and to speak imprudently, particularly in an instance when lives are lost. I do believe the President will refrain from making any statements until he has fully studied the matter and is satisfied with all the answers that he has received as a result of demanding an impartial and thorough investigation,” he said.
Bullets, not food
Hours before the Palace made the statement, local police prepared criminal charges against the rally leaders for organizing an illegal rally, and searched the facilities of the Spottswood Methodist Center for firearms.
On Wednesday, thousands of farmers trooped to the Cotabato-Davao Road in Kidapawan City and barricaded the major thoroughfare to demand the release of 15,000 sacks of rice from the government.
Gunshots were fired and rocks hurled into the air during a scuffle between police and demonstrators as authorities tried to disperse the group on Friday, according to an Agence France-Presse photographer on the scene.
“We asked for rice. Instead, they gave us bullets. The farmers are starving because they have nothing to eat. We went there looking for a solution,” protest leader Norma Capuyan, who witnessed the melee, told AFP.
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 depends 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.
The Philippine National Police said two protesters were killed in the incident, whom Capuyan described as male farmers in their 40s. The PNP also reported that 116 others were hurt – 23 protesters and 93 policemen. Sixteen people are in the hospital for further treatment, two of them policemen in critical condition.
Authorities “exhausted all possible remedies” to end the protest peacefully, but farmers started the scuffle by throwing rocks and twigs, national police spokesman Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor said in a statement.
North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza told reporters she was taking “full responsibility” for the incident.
State weather bureau PAGASA had warned last year that rainfall could decrease by as much as 80% during the drought, which is expected to last until the middle of this year. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com