By Martin Sadongdong
“The farmers were asking for land but they were given bullets.”
This was the lamentation of the Unyon ng Mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura-National Federation of Sugar Workers (UMA-NFSW), a group whose nine farmer-members were massacred in Sagay, Negros Occidental, after they slammed on Wednesday the allegation of the Philippine National Police (PNP) that they are a legal front of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Aurelio Estrada, media relations officer of the UMA-NFSW, told the Manila Bulletin that a national fact-finding mission, led by various progressive groups, was conducted to “uncover the truth” behind the mass shooting at Hacienda Nene in Sagay, Negros Occidental last Saturday, killing nine farmers.
“A fact-finding mission was conducted because we no longer trust the PNP. It’s because they already have a pre-judgment on the case, that we are part of the NPA. We are not like that,” Estrada said in Filipino.
The independent mission was spearheaded by various representatives from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Karapatan-Alliance for Human Rights, Gabriela Women’s Party and National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) among others. Aside from this, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also said it will conduct its own probe while the Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for a separate investigation.
PNP chief, Director General Oscar Albayalde earlier said that the NFSW serves as a legal front of the NPA, urging the farmers to illegally occupy lands.
“Itong NFSW ay isa pong legal front po nila ‘yan. Iyan po ‘yung mga ginagamit nila, mga organisasyon para isulong yung mga… gaya po niyan ‘yung pag occupy ng lupa na pagkakaperahan din (The NFSW is a legal front of the [NPA]. They are using the organizations to push for their [plans], like occupying lands to earn money),” Albayalde said.
But the NFSW denied that they are being used by the NPA, saying the farmers were in the plantation as part of “bungkalan” or land cultivation activity. Bungkalan, according to the NFSW, is a program to help the sugar workers survive the “tiempo muerte” or the dead season in the industry.
“The PNP keeps on using that script — that all those who oppose the government are NPAs. That is not true. If that is the case, then does it mean that what we’re fighting for are illegal? We are fighting for salary, rights, benefits and land,” Estrada said.
He also said the PNP “seemed to justify the killings” when they tagged the group as ally of the communist rebels.
“If they continue to link us to the NPA, it’s as if they are justifying the massacre because we are just ‘rebels’ and it’s okay for us to die, right?” Estrada asked.
“The farmers were asking for land but they were given bullets, that is the truth,” he added.
Recalling his memory, Estrada said the NFSW was founded in 1971 by Catholic priest Luis Jalandoni with help from Italian priests. The group was allied with the Church, advocating for equal rights of farmers.
“Ang tumulong sa papapatayo niyan ay mga pari, ‘yung social action center at kasama si Luis Jalandoni, siya yung pari. May suporta ng bishops, mga hindi Pilipinong pari (It was founded through the help of priests, the social action center including Luis Jalandoni, that’s the priest. It was supported by bishops, foreign priests),” he said.
He claimed that farmers of Hacienda Nene have long been petitioning to claim a portion of the land after years-long of cultivating it.
He added that the Department of Agriculture (DAR) has issued a Notice of Coverage (NOC) to the land owner of Hacienda Nene to subject it under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and then for distribution.
The DAR, on the other hand, claimed the slain farmers were not beneficiaries of the land distribution program.
Estrada explained that the land owner allegedly “distributed” portions of the land to the personal employees so that the farmers won’t have a share on it.
Hacienda Nene is reportedly owned by a certain Carmen Tolentino, who leased the farm to another person.
“Ang ginawa ng landlord para makaiwas, dinonate niya kuno ‘yung 75 hectares sa mga empleyado pati sa yaya at driver (The landlord donated 75 hectares of the land to the employees including the maid and driver to avoid [distributing it to the farmers],” Estrada claimed.
Although this claim has yet to be checked by the police, Chief Superintendent John Bulalacao, regional director of Western Visayas Police Regional Office (PRO-6), earlier said “land dispute” is the “clear” motive behind the massacre.
However, who perpetrated it and who are the brains behind the grim killing remain a mystery to investigators.
Reportedly, police have already identified a person-of-interest in the case but as of writing, authorities refused to respond to queries.
Senior Superintendent Rodolfo Castil, provincial director of Negros Provincial Police Office (NPPO), said details will be provided as soon as they found “solid evidence” to establish a strong case.
“Kung may mga pagbabago, makakaasa kayo na ipaparating namin sa publiko. On-going ang investigation natin. Hindi bale, malalaman din niyo agad iyan (If there are changes, rest assured that we will inform the public. The investigation is on-going. Don’t worry, you will be informed immediately),” he said.