DAVAO CITY, Philippines – “I left my children in our house and joined the picket, hoping to get rice for my children. But we were given bullets.”
Arlyn Oti Amar, a mother of two, was crying as she told the Senate Committee on Justice on Thursday, April 7, how she decided to leave home and join the farmers’ protest in Kidapawan, North Cotabato last April 1 – all because her children needed food.
But her hopes of receiving rice for her family ended in a bloody dispersal that left 3 people dead and about 50 others wounded, including two policemen.
Days before the dispersal, a woman named Leah had told her to leave the picket line and go home. But Amar decided to stay put.
She did not expect the protest to turn violent, until North Cotabato Provincial Police Commander P/Supt Alexander Tagum told them they had 5 minutes to leave the picket line.
Together with some women protesters, Amar tried to withdraw, but members of the dispersal unit caught them near the Spotswood Methodist Compound.
During Thursday’s public hearing, Amar recounted, “Upon reaching the area, we saw our colleagues pushing each other. Policemen beat their feet, their heads, mauled our companions. But we did not hit back. Instead, we tried to withdrew, but the police joined our ranks. We saw our companions bleeding.”
“We pitied our fellow farmers. Why were they doing this to us? After we withdrew, they hit us again and even entered the compound… What we asked for was rice, not bullets. We hope you will listen to us.”
During the public hearing, Tagum claimed that his men were victims of the protesters, who threw rocks, pieces of wood, and steel bars at the police.
His narration was accompanied by video footage of the dispersal, which showed a group of policemen holding up their shields against more than a thousand protesters. (READ: Police prepare charges vs Kidapawan rally leaders)
The police also defended their use of guns, citing intelligence reports that there were active shooters in the crowd.
But the question on who ordered the police to shoot was left unresolved, with Tagum saying that it was a “simultaneous reaction.”
“Walang nag-order na bumaril, parang naging simultaneous ang reaction that time na sumigaw ako na tulungan natin ang ating kasamahan, kasi nakita ko na may tama na. Tapos iyon, nagputukan na,” he said.
(No one ordered the police to fire. It sort of became a simultaneous reaction when I shouted that we should help our colleagues, when I saw that they were wounded. And then the shooting happened.)
Blame on Mendoza
Gerry Alborme, spokesperson of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, blamed North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza, saying her failure to respond to their requests for help led to the violent incident.
The protesters were demanding the release of calamity funds and 15,000 sacks of rice to help them cope with the effects of El Niño.
Alborme said Mendoza was aware of the protesters’ demands on the eve of the picket on March 31, while the farmers were already gathering at the compound of the United Methodist Church (UMC), just a few meters away from the warehouse of the National Food Authority.
“We’d been talking since March 28, but nothing was given,” he said.
Mendoza earlier drew flak for threatening UMC bishop Ciriaco Francisco for “harboring” the protesters who sought refuge in the church compound.
Francisco told the Senate committee that the police and military later searched the compound.
“They (farmers) booked the place because they will hold a prayer rally. We accepted them, but we did not expect that our compound will be surrounded by the police and the military,” he said.
For her part, Mendoza defended her stance, saying the provincial government could not heed the protesting farmers’ demands for at least 15,000 sacks of rice because this would affect the province’s buffer stock amid the El Niño phenomenon. – Rappler.com
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