'I have no regrets' – Kidapawan mayor
KIDAPAWAN, Philippines – Maximum tolerance, said the mayor of Kidapawan, can depend on who has to do the tolerating.
"Is it two weeks?" asked Mayor Joseph Evangelista. "A month? A year? Is it 20,000 people there, my city closed?"
On Friday, April 1, 2016, over 6,000 protesters, most of them farmers, barricaded the Kidapawan National Highway. They insisted on speaking to the governor of North Cotabato. They demanded the sacks of rice promised to their families. They said they were hungry.
By the time the barricades came down, shots had been fired, 2 people were dead, and dozens were injured, including a policeman who had been beaten into a coma and a teenaged farmer who had been shot through the throat. More than 70 are still detained for a variety of charges that include assault and frustrated murder.
The unexpected violence has led to a public outcry.
“The big question is, why was live ammunition used?" Commission on Human Rights Chairman Chito Gascon asked. "Part of maximum tolerance is the use of non-lethal weapons like truncheons, shield, water cannon and tear gas."
Evangelista conceded that there was a difference between a private citizen and a trained police officer. It may be that the policemen should not have reacted.
“But if you were on the ground, how would you react?”
Protecting the police
Evangelista will be running again for his seat unopposed under the ruling Liberal Party. Under his watch, Kidapawan City ranked 16th among the country's most competitive cities. In 2015, the National Competitiveness Council ranked Kidapawan second only to Naga for government efficiency among component cities.
The mayor did not deny that armed personnel were present on April 1. When the decision for police action was made – a decision he said was prompted by the failure of protest leaders to engage in a planned dialogue – the plan included social welfare workers, emergency medical personnel, local police and the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT).
The Public Assembly Act of 1985 bans "the carrying of firearms by members of the law enforcement unit." Violations are punishable by imprisonment from 6 months and one day to 6 years.
Evangelista said that the SWAT was deployed because of information members of the New People's Army had "infiltrated" the ranks of protestors. He said the instruction on the ground was maximum tolerance. He added that the armed unit only reacted after they saw protesters mauling policemen who had been caught in the melee.
“They were positioned on top of fire trucks,” Evangelista said, “so they had the vantage point. They could see what was happening. I think it was only 5 or 6 or 7 meters away from their area. If the police hadn’t used maximum tolerance, they wouldn’t have been pinned down. You can see in the video that no truncheons were being used at the time.”
His reading of reports from the Philippine National Police showed that it was only after the SWAT saw 2 policemen pinned down and “about to be killed” that they felt compelled to “fire warning shots.”
“As the chief executive, I have that responsibility to support my policemen. Right after the incident, I think on the afternoon of April 2, I told my policemen – because there were many from other units – that we will be putting up a legal fund for you.”
The trust fund will be financed by locals whose offers have flooded the mayor’s office.
“So I said, ‘Do not worry, I'm going to hire a private lawyer for you. You don't have to take your legal fees from your pockets to shoulder your legal expenses.’”
The city legal officer will be on hand to help both sides, not just the uniformed troops.
"If a protester's family comes along and asks for help with an affidavit," said the mayor, "we will assist."
Evangelista said the farmers’ protest had a permit for Monday, March 28. The letter the group had written only asked the city for permission to assemble for a single day. The 4 days of protests that followed – from March 29 to April 1 – did not have the city's approval, according to him.
The mayor emphasized Kidapawan’s tolerance for protest actions, citing the city’s willingness to allow rallies even without permits. He himself had gone down to the barricades to negotiate the use of half the national highway. He had hoped to allow the continued delivery of the city's goods and services. Protesters refused.
At the time, he said, businessmen in affected areas were already filing blotter reports. “And they were calling me up and asking, ‘What is this? Is this a stalemate? When will this end?’”
The barricade, said the mayor, affected the entire city, and hampered the livelihood of Kidapawan's citizens.
“How many department stores were beside them? The central warehouse was losing a million a day. What about my tricycle drivers who couldn’t work? My skylabs, my multicabs, my vans? The bananas of my farmers that rotted because they couldn’t travel through that route?”
The worst of it, he said, was when about 700 to 800 protesters blocked the exit of the diversion road the local government had opened through the municipality of Makilala.
“The Energy Development Corporation had huge losses. The maintenance team covering the geothermal plant couldn’t get through, and that’s hourly. My graduates had to walk that day to their ceremonies because it was graduation time. The losses are huge. The biggest loss is investor confidence. They’ll say, ‘Let's take a second look at Kidapawan before investing here.’ There’s no price to that, you can’t compute it.”
It is why he says maximum tolerance is a matter of judgment. “So how do you define maximum tolerance? If you were a private citizen is it 2 hours? For a mayor is it 3 days? For a governor is it one week? For a president is it 5 months?”
“There is no forever,” he said.
In the aftermath of the protest, the local government of Kidapawan City has found itself saddled with costs that include providing breakfast, lunch and dinner to 850 people – money that Evangelista laughingly says could have been spent on rice. That number also includes detainees who are getting “medical attention, tender loving care, food and everything.”
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has pitched in with goods, but the aid, said the mayor, was not enough.
“We had to loan all of this,” said Evangelista. “The taxpayers of Kidapawan, sad to say, will shoulder all of this. That’s what hurts. Hard earned money is spent just for that. But we’re done with the blaming, so let’s move on.”
The constituency of Kidapawan
Evangelista does not believe the city missed opportunities in the lead-up to the violence.
"I have no regrets," he said. "This is part of being a public servant."
His decisions, he added, were informed by data that had been validated and revalidated. Although his team will build more templates for the future, he believes that given the same choices, he will make the same calls.
“Me, as mayor, my job is to protect the life, the liberty and the property of my constituents and their general welfare.” He repeated, "of my constituents."
He added that less than a hundred residents from Kidapawan had joined the protest.
Two people died on April 1. One was a farmer from Arakan. The second was a bystander, Enrico Fabligar, a constituent of the city of Kidapawan. – Rappler.com