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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – “Sir, are we not human that we are not protected against this violence?”
This was the question of an emotional Police Superintendent Alexander Tagum during a Senate public hearing on the violent dispersal of protesters in Kidapawan, North Cotabato. The hearing was held on Thursday, April 7, in Davao City.
Tagum, who was ground commander of the Philippine National Police (PNP) during the bloody dispersal, claimed that his men, not the protesters, were the victims.
Because of the clash, two of his men are in critical condition in the hospital, he said. In comparison, at least two protesters were killed.
Tagum’s narration of events at the hearing was accompanied by a video showing drone footage of the dispersal. (READ: Police prepare charges vs Kidapawan rally leaders)
The audio-less footage showed a tiny group of policemen holding up their shields as they were surrounded by more than a thousand protesters.
“No one is raising their baton to hit anybody. They are virtually sitting ducks here,” said Tagum as the video flashed.
Protesters could be seen lobbing rocks, pieces of wood, and even steel bars at the police. The video then showed fire trucks hosing down protesters who eventually backed off from the police.
Because the video had no audio, it is not clear when the police began to fire their guns.
But Tagum claimed that shots were fired only when it became apparent that serious injuries were being inflicted upon his fellow policemen, and even then, nobody gave the order to fire.
“It was the judgment of my security team, of the SWAT officers. No one gave the order to fire. After the tactical commander heard me say ‘tulungan natin ang ating mga kasama!’ (let’s help our companions), he says, ‘depensa depensa!’ (defense, defense),” recalled Tagum.
He said he even “shouted ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’” but by then it was too late.
Active shooter among protesters ‘likely’
Senators Aquilino Pimentel III, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Teofisto Guingona III questioned Tagum on why the police had brought guns during the dispersal despite existing laws. Thirty policemen were carrying guns, said Tagum.
His narration of events shows that, even before the rally started, the police were expecting the protesters to be assisted by armed persons.
As early as March 25, police received information that “militant groups with support of local armed NPA, MNLF, and IPs” were set to hold a rally on March 28 “coinciding with NPA anniversary,” said Tagum, reading from a Powerpoint presentation. (The New People’s Army’s founding anniversary is on March 29.)
Because of this intelligence, police expected protesters to force their way inside the National Food Authority office and Provincial Capitol compound as “armed elements of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) and [communist groups] engaged government troops causing multiple casualties and injuries.”
Proof that an “active shooter” was present among the protesters include a bullet wound on a policeman. Tagum said the bullet was not of a high-caliber firearm like a rifle but most likely came from a pistol or revolver. The law enforcer was shot in the lower part of his leg.
Tagum and his fellow policemen insisted they abided by the directive to exercise maximum tolerance when dealing with the protesters.
At 9:30 am on April 1, Tagum and Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista announced to protesters by megaphone that they were violating laws and they had 5 minutes to vacate the highway.
It was then that protesters reacted violently, Tagum claimed.
The two protesters who died were both hit by bullets but it is still not clear if the bullets came from police. One bystander interviewed by Rappler said a sniper wearing fatigues and carrying a long gun shot him.
A protester also narrated how a man in black and wearing a mask-like helmet chased him with bullets.
The PNP has formed its own fact-finding mission to probe the actions of police during the dispersal.
‘Not ordinary protesters’
Tagum also sought the empathy of the body, saying they are not the enemies of the farmers.
“We also emphathize with the victims of drought. We are with them. We are the protectors of the people. It is unacceptable to us to say that we are the oppressor of the people,” he said.
Police helped deliver aid for the hungry, including medicine and water. But he claimed “militant organizers” stopped protesters from accepting the aid.
“Unfortunately, with the control of the militant organizers, all those foods we gave along the picket line were thrown back to us. That further proves that that is not an ordinary farmer or IP (indigenous people) on the line because somebody is controlling them and disallowing these people who are hungry,” he said.
Asked by the senators to elaborate, he said marshals along the picket line warned children and elderly protesters not to accept food given to them.
“They shouted, ‘ibalik niyo ‘yan! ibalik niyo ‘yan!‘ (give that back, give that back),” related Tagum.
The series of events leading up to the dispersal as recounted by Tagum are as follows:
March 25, 2016
- Police receive information on an application for permit to rally lodged with the Office of the Kidapawan City Mayor.
- Police receive information that militant groups with support from armed groups will be part of the rally.
- Protesters begin rally.
- Police receive memo from Comelec Region 12 asking police to “control the situation and bring back normalcy and restoration of traffic flow in the City.”
- Police are inspected and told to exercise maximum tolerance, adhere to police procedures, ensure safety and security of the police, avoid creating any opportunity for violence, and ensure the safety of the protesters especially children and elderly.
- Permit to rally lapses.
- At 9:30 am, final instructions are given to police.
- Tagum and Kidapawan Mayor Evangelista explain to protesters by megaphone that they are violating laws and inform them they have 5 minutes to vacate the highway.
- Protesters react violently to announcement.