Some of you are asking, “What is happening in the Philippines?”
Months ago we sent you a manifesto exposing a series of attacks on tribal communities and schools in Mindanao by paramilitary groups. Fr. Fausto and several local groups had set up a network of schools in the last territories claimed by the tribals. On 2011 Fr. Fausto was killed in Arakan, but the schools continue to encourage the tribals to defend their lands and their culture in spite of the killings and evacuations up to now…
Now another bloody incident has surprised us, the violent dispersal of a rally in Kidapawan on April 01, 2016. Because of the El Nino drought our farmers experienced very little rain in the last seven months and this caused widespread crop failure of rice and corn, particularly in remote areas with no irrigation. The small farmers and the tribals tried to sustain the production of banana and rubber, but the prices were lowered to the point that the cost of the transportation was greater then the price they obtained from the middlemen. They cried out, but the government did not listen to their cry. Many families sent their men to look for jobs like cutting sugarcane or construction; many women ran to the cities to find any job or sideline or even to beg for survival. The more educated applied abroad, mostly in the Middle East, some found good jobs but others were treated like slaves or sent back by the agencies.
Suddenly, the militant organizations launched the call to join a rally to demand rice. About 6,000 among the poorest farmers and tribals came down from the remotest areas and they gathered in Kidapawan near the National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse where the rice is kept. Many brought their children expecting to bring home a sack of rice. They set up a barricade on a major highway blocking traffic. There were attempts to dialog, but because of the imminent national election rumors spread that prominent candidates would visit the rally. This upset the administration officials who decided to clear the highway by force. The burly policemen began pushing the skinny farmers with truncheons and shields, but the farmers pushed back. Then the fire trucks used the water cannons, but the farmers held their ground. Then stones throwing intensified from both sides. Some policemen fell down, then a group of fully armed police came out from hiding places and opened fire, first warning shots, then shooting at the crowd. The farmers ran for their lives, but two were killed and 14 were crippled by gunshot wounds. Many others, including policemen, were hospitalized because of wounds caused by stones.
The police immediately arrested 82 farmers, those who could not run away, the wounded and the elderly, some pregnant women and bystanders, even two of our health workers who rushed to bring medicines to the wounded. They were all charged with Direct Assault and brought to jail, even the wounded. Later on the farmers, with the help of human rights lawyers, filed counter charges against 94 officials including the police, the governor and the mayor of Kidapawan. The charges range from murder to illegal arrest and detention.
Some compassionate donors provided a huge amount for the bail of the farmers and also rice to bring home to their families. Then also the government began to distribute rice in the remote areas.
The violent dispersal caused many wounds and recriminations. The cases filed in court will prolong the debate about the plight of the farmers. However right now the attention of the public opinion has shifted to the heated national election on May 9, 2016. Will the small farmers and tribals be remembered after the dust of the election settle down???
We were charged with robbery and jailed for about a month in very unhealthy conditions, so much so, that most of the farmers got sick. Then we were released on bail,and after 1 year the case was dismissed because of the basic principle of law “ Salus Populi Suprema Lex” which means that the survival of people is the supreme law.
While in detention, I wrote a kind of poem which captures the picture of the farmers which is true even today:
After the dismissal of our case in 1992, there were many promises that the plight of the farmers would be given priority in government programs. But by now in 2016, they are crying out again, and their cry cannot be silenced by bullets…
At the present moment we are waiting for the turmoil of the election to calm down. We are disturbed by warnings of more violence after election. There are extremist groups that are already causing panic. My niece in Canada was shocked by the news that on April 25, 2016 a Canadian tourist was beheaded and other hostages are waiting for their turn either to be released, if they pay huge ransoms, or to be also beheaded. My niece asks “Are you also in danger?” there are dangerous groups around us, but we hope and pray that God and the people we serve will protect us…
The farmers are waiting for more rain and seeds for the planting season. At the same time they are preparing for the school year which here starts in June. One urgent request comes from 25 children of farmers and tribals who have struggled to reach college level. They need about 300 euro each for the next school year. If any of you can respond to this request I will send you their pictures and data…we cannot foresee how to solve the general problem of the farmers, but we can help some of their children to become signs of hope…
With sincere thanks for your solidarity and prayers,
Fr. Peter Geremia, PIME