October 20 this year marked the second anniversary of Sagay massacre in Negros Occidental.
Two years after the incident, justice remains elusive. Worse, the Duterte administration has been deflecting accountability by blaming the survivors, their community, and their organization.
State, landlord violence amid pandemic
Despite the economic hardships caused by the administration’s failed coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) response, initiatives of farmers in Negros to earn more to provide food for their families have been treated as a crime by the government.
In Hacienda Bongco, also in Escalante City, farmers’ vegetable gardens, cane fields, and the Panghiusa sa mga Obreros sa Brgy. Jonob-jonob (POBJ) peasant center (farmers group’s office) were ransacked twice. The first incident was on September 20, and the second was earlier this month on October 4. Soldiers from the 79th IB acted like they were external security force for the men in masks who viciously destroyed the crops and ransacked their office.
Authorities also instigated the willful destruction of crops, ransacked, and took over the peasant center of the Pundok sa mga Obreros sa Brgy. Balintawak (POBB) and the POBJ in Escalante City.
Masked goons, together with the soldiers from the 79th IB, inflicted harm and threatened members of the Pundok sa mga Obreros sa Purok Malinawon Association (Popmas) in Brgy. Gen. Luna, Sagay City.
Goons hired by Hacienda Filomena’s former landlord cut down banana trees of the community. They even took over their five hectare corn farm and ransacked their peasant center. The goons were able to get away with the crime since they had the backing of the National Task Force to End Local Commuist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) through the Center for Collaborative Solutions and Initiatives.
“The situation now has become worse than Marcos’ Martial Law, but we are not afraid. The people must continue the quest for justice,” said Arje Marangga, secretary-general of an NFSW municipal chapter.
On November 22, 2018, the Memorandum Order 32 (MO 32) was issued in Negros Island together with Samar and Bicol regions ordering the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to suppress and prevent “lawless violence”.
MO 32 allowed police raids on legal offices and homes of peasant leaders and activists based on defective search warrants.
Instead of helping the victims attain justice, the Duterte administration used the incident to push its counterinsurgency campaign on the island.
Using the whole-of-nation approach under the Oplan Kapayapaan – the Duterte government’s internal security plan – the whole bureaucracy was used to brand peasants and peasant organizations as enemies of the state. In the process, the state systematically protected those responsible for the massacre while the victims were further subjected to suffering and pain.
On January 31, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged two of the survivors of the Sagay massacre with murder. Aside from being NFSW members, Rene Manlangit and Rogelio Arquillo had relatives who were killed in the massacre.
On May 22, the DOJ dropped the child abuse charges against Sagay police officers filed by the mother of one of the minor survivor. This case and the murder raps are under appeal.
The government also took advantage of the climate of fear among the communities by forcing thousands of farmer members of the NFSW, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), and the fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya (Pamalakaya) to “surrender” as “NPA supporters”. The military coerced them to join military-initiated organizations.
Despite the public outrage in the aftermath of the massacre, the killings continued until today. Oplan Sauron – an operational plan of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the AF) in Negros – resulted in more killings.
Among those killed was Benjamin Ramos, a human rights lawyer assisting victims of the massacre. Also killed were Escalante City Councilor Bernardino “Toto” Patigas, a government official supportive of the plight of farmers; local peasant leader Jose Jerry Catalogo; and, most recently, human rights worker, Zara Alvarez.
In just four years, around a hundred peasants and human rights advocates were summarily killed in Negros.
“The situation has gone from bad to worse ever since the implementation of Executive Order 70 or the creation of the NTF-Elcac, which targets ordinary civilians, and now with the passage of the Anti-Terror Law amid Covid-19 the crisis,” said Marangga.
Bungkalan and land rights
Two years ago, nine farmers were killed in Brgy. Bulanon, Sagay City. It was a quiet night as the farmers rested in their makeshift hut after their first day of hard work in their bungkalan or the cultivation of idle and disputed lands as a group.
During that same night, around 40 armed men believed by locals to be paramilitary men from the 12th Infantry Batallion indiscriminately fired their guns at the hut, killing everyone, including the three minors.
The victims and survivors of the massacre were officers and members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and were in the middle of a land dispute with the landlord. They were petitioning for the Hacienda Barbara in Brgy. Bulanon to be part of the government’s land reform program. The bungkalan was part of their assertion for genuine land reform and a way for families to fight hunger during the tiempo muerto or the dead season in sugar plantations by using said lots to plant food for their consumption and for them to generate extra income.
“The Sagay massacre was a warning for peasants to give up the struggle for land rights or face the consequences. It was instigated by the landed elite and powerful people since the victims were mercilessly vilified, the survivors were the ones accused of various crimes, and those defending the victims were the next to be killed, arrested, and threatened by authorities,” said Marangga.
After two years, justice for the victims of the Sagay massacre remains elusive under the current administration.
Because of this, progressive groups such as Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) filed a case in the International Labor Organization (ILO) for violation of the freedom of association, and including extrajudicial killings of workers in the Philippines. Half of the names of the victims submitted to the ILO were from Negros.
On October 21, thousands of workers, activists, and human rights defenders marched to Mendiola side by side with farmers. Dubbed as Day of Defiance, this was the biggest rally done outside of the University of the Philippines (UP) – Diliman since the lockdown. People protested against the depressed palay prices, the lack of support to peasants during the pandemic, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, the inefficient government response to the pandemic, and the killing of farmers. As of today, a total of 277 farmers and land reform advocates were killed since Duterte became president.
According to the NFSW, farmer victims of extrajudicial killings, including those killed in the Sagay massacre can only attain justice by seriously pursuing genuine land reform.