KIDAPAWAN, Philippines – The countdown began at a little before 10 in the morning of April 1, 2016.
A loudspeaker blared. A letter was read. Sunlight shot off the chrome on the red fire trucks ranged behind the police. Clear the highway, said the chief of police, or there will be legal consequences.
The protesters stood their ground. The red flags waved. The painted placards denouncing the military and the government divided the 6-lane highway. A bare foot separated the blue uniform of the police chief from the bright mass of several hundred sweating farmers. Behind them, more protesters streamed out of the Spottswood Compound of the United Methodist Church. Many stood back from the action.
Tell the governor we are hungry. Tell the governor we will not go.
You have 5 minutes, said the police chief.
Both sides braced. Over 200 police uniforms on one side, over 4,000 protesters on the other.
The order came.
"Clear the highway."
On March 25, a week before the rioting, an application for a permit to rally was filed at the Office of the City Mayor of Kidapawan. The letter requested permission to assemble for a single day – for Monday, March 28.
“It said rally, but not much more,” Mayor Joseph Evangelista told Rappler. “Those requests are normal for us in Kidapawan City, because permit or no, we generally let people protest.”
North Cotabato provincial police chief Alex Tagum sent the mayor word that there were reports militant groups had planned the protest. The reports showed there was support from armed members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The protest, he said, was set to coincide with the anniversary of the NPA on March 29.
“I would like to explain the peculiarity of Cotabato province,” Tagum told a Senate panel. “We have 3 guerrilla front committees in Cotabato, and 3 base commands of the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front]. We have many armed groups around Cotabato province, and the reality that there might be an active shooter in rallies is real.”
At 9 in the morning of March 26, Tagum held a meeting with his staff, selected chiefs of police, the Highway Patrol Group and a representative from the Philippine Army. They prepared security responses for the possible takeover of either the National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse or of the provincial capitol. Their projections had protesters forcing their way in, stealing rice, destroying property, and “fighting our troops on their way out.”
“In both scenarios,” Tagum said, “there is the existence of armed elements of MNLF, and NPA will engage government troops. Casualties and injuries are expected.” (While it signed a peace deal with the Ramos administration in the 1990s, the MNLF has factions that continue to rebel against the government and which were behind the Zamboanga City siege in 2013.)
Within the hour, Tagum declared a full alert. He called for the deployment of security forces to both the warehouse and the capitol.
By the next day, March 27, a Sunday, an advanced command post had been established at the NFA warehouse. Reports noted the “slow consolidation of protesters” inside the Spottswood Compound of the United Methodist Church along the national highway. The Cotabato Provincial Police Office held a conference with all task units in preparation for deployment.
The protest at Spottswood was not the first rally for rice held in North Cotabato.
In 1998, over 5,000 farmers demanding seedlings and two sacks of rice per family created a human barricade at the Kidapawan national highway leading to the NFA warehouse. In 2008, also in Kidapawan, over 2,000 farmers from across the province took to the streets to object to the diminishing supply of cheap rice.
Both barricades were taken down after negotiations.
‘I told him not to go’
Across North Cotabato, in the farmlands of the 7 municipalities of Arakan, Antipas, President Roxas, Magpit, Makilala, Mlang and Tulunan, farmers and their families were climbing onto trucks and jeeps for the trip to the capital.
“I told him not to go,” she said. “He told me, ‘Ma, if I go, I might bring home rice.’" In Antipas, North Cotabato, Germa Lumundang was begging her son Victor to stay home. The family was hungry, and her family of 6 was surviving on scavenged taro and greens. Victor was 18, and was preparing to leave. Someone had told him there would be a rally for rice in Kidapawan City, two towns away from Antipas.
In Kitaotao, Bukidnon, Lumenaryo Agustin got into a truck with the rest of his neighbors. There had been no rain in his village of Sukandanon. The fields were hot, and his bananas were dead, even after he poured what water he could get straight down the roots.
The people who came to his village told him there was a plan. They would go, those who were willing, all the way to Kidapawan City. They told him there would be rice from President Benigno Aquino III himself.
Six months of drought, said Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) spokesperson Jerry Alborne, had been “seen and tasted” by the farmers of Mindanao. In January, after the province declared a state of calamity, the KMP ran consultations across North Cotabato’s municipalities. They decided as a body to ask for their share of the calamity fund. (READ: How vulnerable is Mindanao to El Niño?)
In Doroluman, Arakan, Cecilio Camelo decided he would go too. He was 61, and in better days farmed rice and corn and bananas. He had spent the 5 months tending to the crop that refused to grow. The Department of Agriculture sent vegetable seedlings and few goats to his village, but it was rice they needed.
“I came for rice,” he said. “Just the rice.”
‘We have a situation’
“It wasn’t as if all of a sudden there were 4,000 people,” said Mayor Evangelista. “On March 29, we had monitored numbers from 2,000 to 3,000. In the early morning of the thirtieth, they all came out, and totally blocked the national highway.”
At 6:30 in the morning, Evangelista received a message from North Cotabato Governor Emmylou “Lala” Taliño-Mendoza. The governor was in Manila, and asked Evangelista to monitor the situation.
The mayor went down to the picket line, and asked protesters if they could clear half the highway. They told him they would wait for the governor to issue their demands. Evangelista sent word to the governor.
“That afternoon,” Governor Mendoza said, “on the way back, I was lucky to be sitting next to the chief PNP in the airplane. I said, ‘Sir, we have a situation in the area.’”
What concerned Mendoza was not so much the rally but the fact that there were protesters from outside North Cotabato. She had been told groups had come in from Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, Davao del Sur, Compostela Valley, to join those in North Cotabato.
Evangelista shared the same discomfort. Militant group Bayan Muna had arrived.
“My concern was the presence of progressive groups in the area,” he said. “You can see it in their placards. If you’re talking about rice, why talk about bringing down [the military’s] Oplan Bayanihan? What does that have to do with rice?”
Tagum deployed Civil Disturbance and Management (CDM) troops. A negotiator was assigned.
In the afternoon, the mayor was informed that the rally organizers were willing to meet at 9 pm. The governor arrived at the mayor’s office at 8:30. They waited until 11:30. The protesters did not appear.
‘They were lying all along’
The mayor brought in Lito Garcia, the priest who served as the administrator of the Diocese of Kidapawan. Evangelista asked that Garcia invite the rally organizers to a dialogue. At 2 in the afternoon of Thursday, March 31, both sides of the protest were gathered at a diocese conference room. Garcia presided.
The protesters sent 4 representatives – Pedro Arnado of the KMP, Norma Capuyan of indigenous group Apo Sandawa Lumadnong Panaghiusa sa Cotabato (ASLPC), the Reverend Mary Joy Mirasol of the Promotion of Church People's Response (PCPR), and KMP spokesperson Alborme. The government side was led by the governor herself, with Evangelista, the vice governor, as well as representatives of the departments of agriculture and the interior and local government.
The protesters laid out their 5 demands. Fifteen thousand bags of rice to be delivered to the rally site. Subsidies for seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. Raising the prices of farm products, particularly rubber. An end to military operations in villages. An investigation of North Cotabato 2nd District Representative Nancy Catamco, whom farmers claimed had armed paramilitary groups.
“The governor answered the issues point by point,” said Mayor Evangelista.
Mendoza told protesters she had no control over the military, or the price of rubber. She said programs were already in place and subsidies for seedlings and livestock had been extended. She said filing charges against Catamco would be inappropriate before the elections.
As to the most important item for most of the thousands of farmers – the 15,000 bags of rice – “There was no way that was going to happen.”
“When you give away assistance,” Mendoza said, “you have to ensure that the funds can stretch to December or until the El Niño is over. You need prudence in the utilization of funds.”
“She kept repeating to us that she was being controlled by the Commission on Audit,” said KMP Chairman Pedro Arnado. “She had no concrete answers for anything.”
“There was no violent discussion over the items,” said Governor Mendoza. “I made them understand the problems of allocation.”
“The rice was our one real demand of the governor,” said Arnado, “because that can’t wait, our farmers are hungry. We could have talked about the other 4 demands later on. We kept saying that. But she had no action on anything. We went back with nothing.”
Evangelista said the dialogue ended on a hopeful note.
‘We’ll help you get out’
Beyond the picket lines, trucks had been put on standby to give farmers transport back to their villages.
“The dump trucks were ready,” said Mayor Evangelista. “All the mayors had been called to an emergency meeting. They were told if these rallyists did not receive rice on the first round of distribution, they should be getting rice from their municipalities to bring home. But the rallyists all refused.”
Back in the barricades, on the night of March 31, farmers in baseball caps manned the picket lines. Many others curled up on the highway to sleep under the streetlights.
On the other side of the picket, government supporters, possibly employees, appealed for farmers to go home. Policemen offered food and water. Protest marshals held back the few who accepted.
Throw it back, throw back, came the chant.
“Remember, your leaders are using you,” said a man on a microphone. “Those in the back, we’ll help you get out. Our brothers Lumad, see where you sleep, on cement, while your leaders sleep inside. We have no other request for you beyond telling you there is transport available. There is transport that can take all of you home. You can go home, and that’s where you’ll find the rice you’ve been asking for. We will send the rice to your municipalities.”
“The farmers were told the rice would be waiting,” Arnado told Rappler. Forty-seven of the farmers took the government up on the offer and went back to Arakan and Magpet.
“The mayor of Magpet told them, ‘We don’t have rice left, we distributed everything last month.’ The mayor of Arakan told them, ‘We have no rice left in Arakan.’ So the farmers all thought the governor had been lying to them.”
The governor arrived at the city hall at 7 in the morning of April 1, Friday. Both Mendoza and Evangelista were expecting the farmers to arrive for a second round of dialogue. They waited until 9.
“Eight o’clock, nine o’clock, none of them came,” said Mendoza.
Arnado, who was at the picket lines at the time, said they waited all morning to be given a venue for the dialogue.
“We felt, based on our conversation with the governor, that it should be on neutral ground, not at the city hall. We felt they weren’t serious about the dialogue. We knew they were planning the dispersal, but there were no updates on whether the dialogue was pushing through.”
The governor called Father Peter Geremia.
Geremia, the Italian missionary whom the parishioners of Arakan Valley all call Padre, had spent 35 years of the 50 he had served as a priest working among the impoverished of Mindanao.
“I was late coming from Arakan,” said Geremia. “When I got to the city hall, I called one of the leaders. He said, ‘Give us a little more time, one hour.’ Then he said the dialogue should be in a neutral venue, not the city hall.’”
Geremia relayed the message to the governor. The priest did not understand why the city considered the dialogue already suspended, only that it was. He asked to negotiate with protesters himself, and headed to the Spottswood Compound.
"I said, if you're going to take the minors, there needs to be negotiation," said Geremia. "I don't think parents will let you take their children without talking about it first."
An interview with the governor offers some insight into the reasoning behind the sudden turn against negotiations. Word had spread that Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was coming to Kidapawan. The hugely popular presidential candidate, whose promise was to put Mindanao at the forefront, is running opposite Mendoza’s Liberal Party.
One of Duterte’s supporters, former North Cotabato Governor Emmanuel Piñol, had announced Duterte might come to the barricades.
“At nine o’clock in the morning, you’ll tell people that Duterte is coming,” blustered an infuriated Mendoza. “We’ve been here 4 days. We haven’t slept for 4 days. Our policemen are few, and there are so many protesters. That really got us angry, and it’s why we tried to enforce the clearing of the highway instead of allowing the people to get curious. Many more might join.”
‘It is insulting, it is hurtful, it is embarrassing’
Many critics have argued it would have been simpler to give hungry farmers at the picket line the rice they so desperately needed.
In a hearing before the Senate, a calm and collected Mendoza, the picture of the hardworking bureaucrat, her hair pulled back, glasses in place, explained to senators that funds for rice did exist. She put the responsibility on the national government, whose policies put a quota on rice bought from the National Food Authority. She added that governors must be careful with their spending, with resources that need to be stretched all the way to December.
Yet another interview, the day after the riots, showed a different Mendoza. She sat beside Tagum and Evangelista, sunglasses perched at the top of her head, a different woman from the polite government official who sat before senators of the republic – indignant, angry, contemptuous of the farmers whom she implied had mixed intentions.
“Why are you there? How did you end up there when you have rice anyway? Because you were invited to rally, and promised you are getting rice from the governor, or rice by the government. So to segregate, who is ours and who are reinforcements, there will be no rice distributed at the picket line!”
In a long, impassioned rant, the governor said transportation had been made available for those who wanted rice from the municipal office, provided they proved they were from North Cotabato. She said the mayors had tried to bring home their residents, but the protesters had been blocked by the rally leaders. She added that there was no need for her to approach the picket, as the capitol was open to anyone who chose to see her.
“This is insulting,” she said, fuming. “And it is hurtful to the feelings. Do this to the bastard politicians, not to us who are serious about our jobs. Because it is insulting and it is embarrassing,” she said.
“And then it’s Friday. Four days. That’s too much maximum tolerance!”
Businesses, livelihood hampered
By April 1, pressure from local business was increasing to end the stalemate. Blotter reports had been filed against protesters. The mayor was fielding phone calls from across the city. “And they were calling me up and asking, ‘What is this? Is this a stalemate? When will this end?’”
The barricade, said the mayor, affected the entire city, and hampered the livelihood of Kidapawan's citizens.
“How many department stores were beside them? The central warehouse was losing a million a day. What about my tricycle drivers who couldn’t work? My skylabs, my multicabs, my vans? The bananas of my farmers that rotted because they couldn’t travel through that route?”
The worst of it, he said, was when about 700 to 800 protesters blocked the exit of the diversion road the local government had opened through the municipality of Makilala.
“The Energy Development Corporation had huge losses. The maintenance team covering the geothermal plant couldn’t get through, and that’s hourly. My graduates had to walk that day to their ceremonies because it was graduation time. The losses are huge. The biggest loss is investor confidence. They’ll say, ‘Let's take a second look at Kidapawan before investing here.’ There’s no price to that, you can’t compute it.”
Maximum tolerance, he said, was a matter of judgment. “So how do you define maximum tolerance? If you were a private citizen is it 2 hours? For a mayor is it 3 days? For a governor is it one week? For a president is it 5 months?”
According to the Public Assembly Act of 1985, BP 880, maximum tolerance "means the highest degree of restraint that the military, police and other peace keeping authorities shall observe during a public assembly or in the dispersal of the same." It means, among other elements, the refusal to carry arms into situations where panic and adrenaline will make pulling a trigger a legitimate choice.
“There is no forever,” Evangelista said. “There was no more information that the protesters would attend the dialogue. So the decision was there. Police action.”
'They were armed, of course'
Mendoza said they had written the Commission on Elections for guidance. They wanted the operation to be “by the book.” The subsequent response “became the basis of our police to ensure that law and order is executed because the area has been closed for 4 days.”
Comelec Resolution 2016-01, addressed to the Philippine National Police, requested for “the augmentation of the police force to control the situation and bring back normalcy of the activity in the area immediately.” The resolution said nothing about the manner of execution, or any advice toward suspending negotiations.
“The position states that we have to open the national highway,” said Mendoza. “As to when, that is already a police action. We didn’t have the ability to determine the threat.”
That decision was left to the police. “We decided to proceed with the law enforcement operation after all negotiations were exhausted.”
Tagum presented a police action plan. All members of the Civil Disturbance Management (CDM) component were to have no firearms. The team would be composed of social workers, a medical team, the local police, and firemen.
To provide security, members of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team were also deployed.
“They were armed, of course.”
The Public Assembly Act of 1985, or BP 880, bans "the carrying of firearms by members of the law enforcement unit" at protest venues. Violations are punishable by imprisonment from 6 months and one day to 6 years.
Tagum claimed that the carrying of firearms was allowed “as part of the security component of civil disturbance management.”
BP880 makes no such distinction. No firearms are permitted in protest sites, regardless of whether they are carried by SWAT or CDM.
The PNP manual does permit security teams to appear as support for the CDM. Paragraph D of rule 25.7 says that during violent incidents, “PNP security elements shall be tactically deployed to provide immediate assistance to CDM contingent.” The same paragraph also says only “non lethal weapons and equipment may be used to suppress violence, to protect lives and prevent further damage to properties.”
Legal experts say that the fact of the manual’s contradiction does not matter – the law trumps procedure, and the police are in no position to reinterpret its demands.
Told by members of the Senate that the law was violated on the ground, Tagum, frustrated, demanded an answer.
“Do you mean to say sir, it is allowable to kill my people who are now on the ground?”
‘Clearing, not dispersal’
The plan, the mayor explained, involved a dialogue with the rally leaders and the request to clear half the highway.
“You will not hear the word ‘dispersal’ in any of our pronouncements,” he said. “The presentation was just to clear the highway.”
Very few of the CDM policemen were equipped with riot gear. A request for more yielded only enough to equip 35. The rest of the gear, said the higher command of the PNP, were in Manila, where they had been stored since the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2015.
At 10 in the morning of April 1, Evangelista, Tagum, the local police chief, and the village chief of Kidapawan Poblacion stood at the picket line before a crowd of protesters.
“The team was there,” said Evangelista, “and we said there was help available for the sick and the children. The social workers were at the back. The chief of police read the letter asking the protesters to vacate the highway, and listed the cases they would face if they didn’t. I can’t remember the others but illegal assembly was one of them.”
The SWAT team was perched on the fire trucks, watching the proceedings.
“We talked for maybe two minutes,” said KMP’s Arnado. “The mayor said, ‘We have no choice but to disperse you.’ He counted one to 5. That’s when the police and the fire trucks got moving.’”
The blue uniforms pushed forward. Roughly 200 men in helmets clutching plyboard shields and wooden sticks attempted to push back protesters whose numbers could potentially reach thousands. The protesters held the line. There was shoving, shouting, scuffles across the front lines, just as the fire trucks joined in to blast out streams of water.
The first rock was thrown even before the protesters were sent scurrying back.
Forward, said the ground commander over the megaphone.
“They are virtually sitting ducks to implement our maximum tolerance policy,” said Tagum, “and they are being hit by stones. Unfortunately sir, I was there and I saw the support of the firetrucks. They were not supporting us with water cannons, but rather spraying us with water.”
A few dozen protesters came racing back, most of them young men armed with rocks and sticks. The rocks came flying, gravel chunks half the size of a man's head. Shields broke. Policemen ducked. The blue uniforms crouched in a small phalanx at the center of the road.
Forward, said Tagum. Forward, forward, forward.
The young men swung back and threw, swung back and laughed, darting forward and back in their rubber slippers, sending the rocks flying thick and fast while staying well out of range of the sticks and shields wielded by the dripping gentlemen of the Philippine National Police.
Projectiles smacked against shields, against tin, ripping into trees and the occasional road sign – Slow Down, Max Speed, 40 kph.
Retreat, said the ground commander.
The blue uniforms sprinted past the fire trucks, shoulders tucked behind their shields. Two of their own were left behind. The protesters surged. The fallen uniforms were surrounded. A protester raised a stick and slammed, fast and hard, again and again, smashing down on the unprotected body of the policeman sprawled at the center of the highway. A drone flew overhead. A few meters away, another fallen officer took a beating.
Go back, shouted Tagum, go back for our men.
The SWAT commander, from his perch on top of a fire truck, took up the cry. Defend, he shouted, defend.
The first shot rang out. Then a second. There were 82 bullets in total.
One of them found farmer Darwin Sulang, at least 9 minutes after the order to clear the highway. He lay on his side under the trees, blood pouring out of his skull. He was still there as the SWAT team jumped out of the fire trucks and raced past him with their M14s.
He was 22 years old.
There are a number of facts that can be established. Negotiations, for whatever reason, were cut short. The riot police were unprepared and outnumbered. The security division carried long arms including M4 carbines.
The PNP, in its explanation to the Senate, said that BP880 allows for firearms 100 meters away from the protest zone.
The closest member of the SWAT team, mounted on one of the 5 fire trucks positioned behind the CDM, was at most 25 meters away from the protesters. The others were spread with a difference of roughly 10 meters.
Mayor Evangelista goes further. “The SWAT were positioned on top of the fire trucks, so they had a vantage point. They could see the action happening I think 5 or 6 or 7 meters from their area.”
“It was the judgment call of my security team who are securing my unarmed,” Tagum said. “No one gave them the order to fire.”
“The big question is, why was live ammunition used?" Commission on Human Rights Chairman Chito Gascon asked. "Part of maximum tolerance is the use of non-lethal weapons like truncheons, shield, water cannon, and tear gas."
In the days after the riot, armed detachments were set up inside and outside the Spottswood Compound. Evangelista said the military occupied the compound to protect against “bad elements.” They have since been ordered out. Search warrants turned up no weapons from the protesters.
Provincial police chief Tagum has been relieved from his post. On the day after his administrative suspension, he told Rappler he was disappointed by the immediate condemnation directed at the police.
"Images of felled policemen being crushed under heavy blows and hail of rocks and stones did not merit sympathy and some understanding” from the pundits, he said. For them, said Tagum, “policemen may as well be sitting ducks in a carnival shooting gallery, or robots who are impervious to fear and pain.”
The former director said those invoking PNP guidelines about arms in protest sites should ask if threats existed. Why were there gunshots, who fired the guns? Is it fair for the protesters to beat up felled policemen? What happened to the rule of law and respect for authority? Are policemen not bound to defend comrades and prevent the commission of murder?
“To suggest that policemen should just absorb the punishing blows and risk death is to encourage hooliganism,” he said. “More than that, it sends the wrong message that policemen are fair game to armed lawless elements who are embedded in peaceful-looking rallies.”
The next Kidapawan
In the aftermath of the April 1 protest, 81 protesters were charged with a variety of crimes, including frustrated murder and direct assault. Many of them were senior citizens, including an old woman who believed the police were inviting her to a meal. Some of those detained were pregnant. Bail has been set at P526,200.
The Commission on Human Rights said their findings, yet to be finalized, “are disturbing.”A policeman is in the hospital in a coma from the mauling. Two protesters are dead. The autopsies are pending, but the PNP conceded both had been shot. A fact-finding mission run by Karapatan Human Rights group put the number of gunshot injuries at 40. One farmer named Arnel Tagyawan claimed to have been shot on the foot by a helmeted man on top of a fire truck.
The farmers who emptied out of the Spottswood compound in the days after the protest went home carrying sacks of rice brought in, not by government, but by concerned celebrities. Across Mindanao, in towns that include conflict-ridden Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, farmers wonder if staging “a Kidapawan” will be necessary to eat.
Pablo Arnado, the KMP chairman, said he believes the protest was successful.
“It opened a lot of support from the public," he said, "and showed the international community and the whole world that the government of North Cotabato cannot answer a simple question.”
Both Mayor Evangelista and Governor Mendoza believe that maximum tolerance had been applied across the board.
For the local government of Kidapawan City, maximum tolerance is not defined as a restrained response to provocation – it is a time frame.
They waited 4 days, they said. They sent food and water and transport. They were outnumbered and attacked.
“How do you qualify maximum tolerance?” Evangelista asked. “Of course the training is different for police and private citizens. If you’re a private citizen, you get pinched and you react. The policemen shouldn’t have reacted, but if you were on the ground, how would you react? If they really intended to kill, the ones with the guns, our SWAT, aren’t they trained?
"So what is maximum tolerance? Two weeks, a month, a year? Thirty thousand protesters there, and my city closed?”
Peter Geremia of Arakan comes daily to the detention center. Two of his staff, health workers who came from his parish in Arakan, have also been detained. Ali Palma and Jolito Gomez were carrying in medical supplies after the protest when they were detained by police.
"From what I saw," said the priest from Arakan, "they could have negotiated before police action. And maybe there was a chance. I can't predict it, but there was a possibility for negotiation."
‘All he wanted’
At the Midway Hospital in Kidapawan City, Germa Lumundang stands guard over her son.
Four bullets ripped into the 18-year-old Victor at a little after 10 in the morning of April 1. Three had pierced his upper thighs – two on the left, one on the right. A fourth bullet went through his throat.
Germa and her husband have abandoned their farm in Malapat to take turns watching Victor. The 3 children who still live at home have been left to find what food they can. Germa’s duty is to sit beside her son, every day, while he struggles to breathe inside the intensive care unit.
“I can’t talk to him anymore,” said Germa. “When I got here, he didn’t have a voice anymore. It’s hard for him to talk. If he wants something from us, he’ll gesture instead. If something hurts somewhere, he’ll signal to us where."
All her son wanted, said his mother, was to bring home rice. – Rappler.com