Employees and member-consumer-owners (MCOs) took back the Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco) headquarters on Wednesday morning, October 20, three days after National Electrification Administration (NEA) officials and appointees staged a pre-dawn takeover with the help of armed police forces.
Staff of NEA-appointed general manager and lawyer Ana Maria Rafael left the Beneco compound around 9:48 am after Beneco employees marched from Baguio City’s central business district to their main office on South Drive.
Speaking before the crowd at around 11:30 am, engineer Melchor Licoben thanked the MCOs and the local governments for their support.
“I don’t really know what to say except for thank you… Our problem last night was if there will be a gathering, we don’t know what can happen and we keep praying that no violence will occur and we are grateful that we, the MCOs, showed that we are peace-loving people in Benguet and Baguio City,” he said.
“After this we will immediately go back to check our system and hopefully after lunch we will be back to normal operations. But this is not the end but actually the beginning. We hope that we can sustain this so that our operation will not be paralyzed,” he added.
Licoben also appealed to everybody to remain peaceful and vigilant.
Hours after employees resumed work at Beneco, NEA Project Supervisor Omar May, who was with Rafael during the October 18 takeover, told Rappler in an interview that “the rule of law was not followed.”
“The rule of law was not followed…because there is a pending petition before the Court of Appeals. Why can’t they [Licoben] wait for the result? We have waited long enough. Why can’t they make the [Court of Appeals] issue a TRO?” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Mayo said that he was at the Beneco warehouse in Alapang, La Trinidad, checking the supplies needed for repairs when the protesters entered the headquarters on South Drive. He stayed there for the entire time the protest was happening at the main office to oversee the removal of a forklift and two transformers blocking the facility’s entrance.
Mayo reiterated that Rafael was legally in charge of the electric cooperative. He also reminded Licoben to follow up his appeal for the issuance of a temporary restraining order, saying this was the proper thing to do instead of doing things that ran contrary to the content of his petition.
Taking it back
Bystanders along the march route raised their fists and cheered the protesters. Vehicles plying the roads also honked their horns in support of the employees.
MCOs waiting at the headquarters welcomed the employees with cheers and beating gongs as around 100 police officers stood on alert.
After negotiations with Baguio City Police Chief Glenn Lonogan, the protesting employees and MCOs entered the Beneco compound and office at 8:45 am.
MCOs and employee representatives have asked police to leave and allow conditions to normalize in the power coop compound. Lonogan said there were around 500 protesters while organizers gave a 1,000-person estimate of the crowd. As of 10 am, Lonogan remained inside the Beneco offices to supervise the police presence.
The protesters immediately started a program, by reading a General Assembly resolution rejecting NEA’s appointment of Rafael as general manager and the suspension of several members of the Beneco board.
As of this writing, more protesters were joining the group. Neither Mayo nor Rafael spoke with reporters covering the event. Rappler is trying to reach the NEA camp and will update as they respond.
The dawn raid-like takeover of the Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco) by the National Electrification Commission (NEA) and Police Regional Office troops on October 18 received widespread condemnation from the Baguio and Benguet communities, including from the leader of the Diocese of Baguio.
“I am issuing this statement as a concerned citizen and resident of Baguio. Together with the Member-Consumer-Owners (MCOs) of BENECO and other households and residents of Baguio and Benguet, I have been alarmed with what is happening in the BENECO,” said Catholic Bishop Victor Bendico of the Baguio Diocese.
The bishop also expressed disappointment over the NEA’s barring of employees after the takeover. He warned the move could hamper rehabilitation efforts after typhoon Maring ravaged Baguio and Benguet.
“It has disrupted many activities and undertakings, from great projects of government workers and leaders to the smallest efforts of simple citizens and students that entail electricity,” the head of the Baguio diocese said.
“Along with others, we also denounce the ‘forceful takeover of the offices’ of BENECO. I expect respect, and civility, and refined manners in addressing concerns that beset us,” Bendico said.
The Diocese of Baguio with the League of Associations at the La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Areas Inc. held a 6:30 pm prayer vigil on Tuesday at the La Trinidad Trading Post. The participants also expressed support to the employees and the suspended Beneco officials.
Mayo and Rafael took over the Beneco headquares around 3 am on Monday, October 18, escorted by around 50 fully armed members of the Police Regional Office Cordillera.
Mayo explained that the NEA deputized the PNP to implement a suspension order against seven Beneco board of directors and their appointed general manager, engineer Melchor Licoben. NEA ordered the police “to employ all necessary steps” to prevent the suspended Beneco officials from exercising authority.
The police have stayed in the area since the NEA takeover.
The combat-like operation to take control of the civilian electric utility facility caused alarm and frightened employees. Those inside, when the police over-run the building, left their stations when other Beneco officials arrived. The other workers opted not to report and joined the sit-down protest.
Footages of the incident quickly circulated in social media, prompting MCOs to rush to the area for an impromptu protest against the forcible takeover of NEA and Rafael.
Several members of the Baguio community called the incident an “armed” and “militarist” action.
Garcia’s Premium Coffee condemned the incident, calling it “illegal and militarist.” The shop owners also expressed solidarity with Beneco and support to Licoben. The establishment is one of the oldest coffee stores in the city.
Meanwhile, Baguio multisectoral group Tongtongan ti Umili (TTU) characterized the Beneco seizure as “NEA-instigated, Malacañang-backed, and PROCOR-NBI-protected break in.” They also denounced the “armed takeover” of the facility.
TTU said NEA and Rafael’s “tyrannical exercise of power” obviously received blessings from the Duterte administration.
“We have seen attempts like this done by forces of the Duterte regime, who resorted to force and power when they can’t get what they want,” the statement said.
“Tongtongan ti Umili strongly regards these developments as a strong insult to the members-consumers-owners (MCOs) of BENECO, especially when we are all trying to recover from disaster. Moreover, the actions of Rafael and NEA spit blatantly on our legal processes, disrespecting the cases filed in court,” the statement said.
‘PNP acted like private armies’
TTU also condemned PROCOR for allowing the use of police officers in a hostile takeover of a public utility.
“This is but another proof that they are no longer reflections of their credo ‘to serve and protect,’ especially when they act as private armies of the corrupt and power-hungry,” the group stated.
Philreca also lambasted the PNP “for allowing the agency to be used in an illegal act and protecting only the one-sided interest” of Rafael’s camp. The electric coop alliance accused the police of “blindly following the orders from its chain of command instead of protecting the interest of the member-consumer-owners and maintaining neutrality.”
“At this point, the police (have) no personality in what is happening in BENECO, a private company. They do not have any authority to be in the premises. If any, they are supposed to be there only to maintain neutrality and ensure peace and order,” the group said.
“NEA may have the power to deputize law enforcement to enforce a decision in the exercise of its adjudicating powers, but this is not a case of adjudication,” Philreca added.
Members of the House of Representatives power bloc have asked Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año and PNP Chief Guillermo Eleazar, and the entire police leadership to intervene on this issue.
In a letter addressed to Año and Eleazar, the congressmen said the Beneco office is “being treated as if a military camp.” They questioned the continuing presence of the PNP since it had already fulfilled the NEA order.
Local officials take action
Officials from Baguio City and Benguet immediately took steps to express concern and dismay over the incident.
Benguet Provincial Board members filed six resolutions regarding the Beneco issue. On top of these is the declaration of Rafael as persona non grata in Benguet authored by Juan Nazarro, Jr. The body will discuss the resolutions on Oct. 25, their next regular session.
The Baguio City Council also passed a resolution on October 18, requesting Licoben, Mayo, and the PROCOR director to appear before the body on October 25 to explain the incident.
Mayor Romeo Salda and Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan also expressed disappointment over NEA’s takeover. Mayor Benjamin Magalong condemned the incident earlier and reiterated his trust and confidence in Licoben’s leadership.
Baguio City Representative Mark Go reiterated his stand that the directors of Beneco have the authority to appoint the general manager. He lamented that his appeal to NEA to resolve the matter during the budget deliberation “have fallen on deaf ears.”
“It is unfortunate that the situation has escalated to a degree where armed uniformed PNP personnel were involved. I am also saddened by the fact that the employees and customers of BENECO are affected by this ongoing conflict,” he said.
Sherwin de Vera is a Luzon-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.