January 28, 2005

Truth is stranger than fiction (Conclusion)

One thing emerges from all the moves of the Hacienda Luisita management and the Arroyo government prior to the Nov. 16 massacre. A high-level decision had been made to break the strike of the farm and sugar mill workers, without negotiations, using as legal cover the assumption of jurisdiction of Labor Secretary Sto. Tomas and her subsequent return-to-work order. The police and even the military were "deputized" to do the dirty work of implementing the DoLE order by brute force.

The strikers, with their community support from barrios inside the hacienda, plus sympathizers from militant mass organizations, local government officials, party-list congresspersons and various groups from the middle forces, had already proven in three previous violent dispersals that they had the numbers, the determination and the broad support to defend the picket line from the assaults of the police.

So the military was called in. Aside from around 700 policemen, there were 17 truckloads of soldiers in full battle gear, and two tanks equipped with heavy weapons, a pay loader and four fire trucks with water cannons. They had hundreds of tear gas canisters. There were snipers positioned in at least five strategic places in front of and at the sides of the "oval," the open area in front of Gate 1 where the strikers and rallyists were massed up.

Water cannons blasted the strikers and their supporters with chemical-laced water that stung their eyes and skin and initially forced them back from the front lines facing Gate 1. But after they had washed away the stinging fluid, the strikers returned.

Hundreds of tear gas canisters were then hurled at them. This tactic was more effective in dispersing the crowd; smoke permeated the grounds and the sound of coughing, gagging and cries for water filled the air. In due time, however, a few intrepid strikers learned to smother the tear gas by either dowsing the canisters with water or burying these in the sandy soil of the oval.

The pay loader and the tank ("armed personnel carrier") were then used to smash open Gate 1, the same gate management had earlier padlocked. After the third attempt, the tank succeeded but the strikers threw stones at it and forced the tank to pull back.

In jubilation that they had been victorious in causing the tank to retreat, scores of strikers rushed through Gate 1 towards the fire trucks brandishing their bamboo sticks and throwing everything they could get their hands on, even an LPG tank, at the assaulting tank.

Then a volley of gunfire rained down on the protesters; it lasted for a minute, followed by more sporadic shooting. Everyone scampered away from where the gunfire was coming from, away from where the police and military were positioned, behind Gate 1, inside the compound of the sugar mill.

Two of the victims who later died were shot while they attempted to clamber up a fire truck. One was shot a few meters from the perimeter fence adjacent to the gate. Two were found dead in the creek about three meters away from the barbed wire at the left side of Gate 1. Another was fatally wounded while running away from the gate with his father and the last victim was hit while running across the oval.

The two union presidents were chased by snipers' bullets while they were running towards the sugarcane trucks parked about 130 meters from the gate.

The doctor who had autopsied four of the seven fatalities noted that based on the wounds sustained, the trajectory of the bullets indicated that the victims were running or in a crouching or prone position when they were shot. They were not in a position meant for attack. A medical team who saw many of the wounded sustained the observation of the doctor who had done the autopsies.

Arrested strikers, many of them suffering from gunshot wounds, testified that they were hit with rifle butts and truncheons, kicked with combat boots, manhandled and hurled into waiting army trucks by police and soldiers who bore no nameplates. Some even verbally abused their victims, castigating them for resisting the dispersal and standing their ground. Investigators attempted to lure the detained workers into incriminating themselves by demanding that they confess their "aliases."

More evidence of collusion and premeditation between management and the AFP/PNP came up as the investigation uncovered the fact that an Army medical team was dispatched to the St. Martin de Porres Hospital, the Cojuangco-owned private hospital adjacent to the sugar mill, more than half an hour prior to the start of the violent dispersal on Nov. 16. Moreover, all the remaining in-patients were discharged. By 8 p.m., all the hospital personnel, including the doctors and nurses who had attended to the dying and wounded patients, were all told to go home. The hospital remained under tight military and police control up to the following day.

The three dead workers who the police said were positive for gunpowder burns were in the custody of the military and/or police for several hours when no relative was present or gave any permission for such tests to be made. The finding that they were positive for gunpowder burns was based purely on the say-so of those same police and military suspected to have perpetrated the massacre.

Not a single policeman or soldier sustained any gunshot wound. Nine were reported by the PNP to the media as testing positive for gunpowder burns.

What is becoming clearer by the day is that the escalation and expansion of the conflict at Hacienda Luisita is not the handiwork of "outsiders," whether it be the New People's Army or militant organizations prejudged by the government as perennial troublemakers. In truth and in fact, it is the inevitable result of the exploitation and oppression perpetrated by feudal landowners like the Cojuangcos backed by pliant government bureaucrats and the military and police; in short, state power used illegally and immorally to suppress legitimate dissent.

Such abusive and oppressive use of state power may succeed in stifling dissent in the short term, but will most certainly only lead to bitterness, further protest and defiance, if not rebellion, in the long run.

On the other hand, the striking workers are gathering broader support by the day as the truth and legitimacy of their demands become clearer to more and more people.

The firm, just and heroic stand of the workers of Hacienda Luisita, together with the broad support they have gathered, including the recent pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, has forced the Arroyo government to soften its hard-line position, albeit still double-edged and tenuous, while the military persists in its all-out propaganda offensive categorizing the Hacienda Luisita conflict as a "national security" matter.

Today, there is still a standoff, but history is on the side of the oppressed and struggling workers of Hacienda Luisita.

Jan. 28-29, 2005

January 21, 2005

Truth is stranger than fiction (First of two parts)

Two months after government soldiers, police and private security guards fired at unarmed Hacienda Luisita strikers, the Arroyo government has not shown any sign of seriously going after the perpetrators or determining who was responsible for the carnage.

Instead, it has displayed alacrity in clearing from any culpability the Cojuangco family (who adamantly refused to negotiate with the workers and insisted on breaking up the strike by any means), the Labor secretary (who issued the illegal orders to call in the military and disperse the workers and rallyists with teargas, water cannon and tanks) and the army and police officers who gave the illegal orders to shoot, maim and round up anyone their men could lay their hands on.

Worse, the Cojuangcos and the Arroyo government washed their hands of any guilt by callously accusing the strikers themselves of firing at government forces. Even before any investigation could be made, they claim that New People's Army fighters had joined the strikers, citing nothing more than alleged intelligence reports to bolster their claim.

In the meantime, a fact-finding mission commissioned by the victims themselves, composed of veteran human rights workers, lawyers, doctors and activists, conducted its own investigations over a period of six weeks.

The members talked to more than a hundred witnesses and survivors, did several ocular surveys of the site where the massacre took place, as well as outlying areas, and gathered documents and other physical evidence. They took down the testimony of the doctor who conducted an autopsy on four of those killed and, as far as they could, did an examination of the remaining unburied cadavers.

They listened as well to the testimonies of local government officials, the local police and military top brass as well as the Labor secretary and her underlings in several public hearings conducted by the Lower House, the Senate and the Commission on Human Rights.

In the absence of any other findings with a modicum of credence and without prejudice to the convening of a Truth Commission composed of independent, morally upright, competent and credible members, the result of the fact-finding mission more than deserves the public's attention.

Here are the most important pieces of information and analysis of what really happened on the days leading up to and the day itself of the massacre.

The United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) started the strike at 11 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2004, charging management had engaged in union busting or unfair labor practices, and had refused to bargain thereafter. Almost all of the 5,000-strong farm worker's union membership joined the strike, with their families and communities in outlying barrios supporting them.

The ULWU strike was not covered by the "AJ" or assumption of jurisdiction by the Labor secretary. ULWU's case is with the National Labor Relations Commission. If one will be strict about legality, the four dispersal operations ordered by DoLE at Gate 1 of the sugar mill, where the ULWU members were primarily manning the picket lines, is patently illegal since Ms. Sto. Tomas' "AJ" does not cover the ULWU strike.

The Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) struck at 3 p.m., the same day. When leaders of CATLU learned that management had caused all gates to be closed and that sugar mill workers would be locked in, they called for their members to strike as well. The CATLU had their own CBA deadlock with management to contend with. It did not take long for them to recognize that both unions had a better fighting chance by uniting their forces and striking together. About 700 sugar mill workers joined the strike while 80 chose to go to work.

On Nov. 6 and 7, without any return-to-work nor deputization order from DoLE, the police interfered in the labor dispute. Instead of following the law and keeping themselves at least 50 meters away from the picket line, the PNP undertook a premeditated attack to break up the strike using teargas, water cannon, and truncheons. The workers defended themselves with sticks and stones. Many were hurt in the ensuing melee.

On Nov. 10, Ms. Sto. Tomas issued an "assumption of jurisdiction" order citing that the Cojuangcos' hacienda and sugar mill were "vital" to the national interest. On Nov. 12, Labor Usec Imson formally asked the police to "ensure ingress and egress from the company premises."

But ingress and egress were assured. There was no need to force open Gate 1 leading to the sugar mill because by Nov. 15, Gates 3 and 6 were very much open. Proof of this was that the vehicles of management as well those of the police and military, later to include two armed personnel carriers (APCs) and four fire trucks, were free to go in and out of the hacienda. Sr. Supt. Angel Sunglao, Tarlac police chief, admitted as much in the House of Representatives hearings held to investigate the massacre.

The real purpose of the forcible opening of the padlocked Gate 1 (which management itself had closed) was to disperse the rallyists and destroy the picket line that had been serving as the most visible rallying point and symbol of the workers' struggle.

There was no need to deploy the police to disrupt an otherwise peaceful work stoppage and legitimate protest action of the workers.

To make matters worse, on Nov. 15, Ms. Sto Tomas deputized not only the police but also the military to enforce her order, an act seriously questioned by senators and human rights lawyers as a unlawful, a blatant violation of the constitutional provision that states only the President or Commander-in-Chief can call out the troops to quell a riot or rebellion. The involvement of the military who are not trained to deal with civilian disturbances arising out of demonstrations or strikes was deemed directly contributory to the carnage that ensued with the authorities utilizing disproportionate and far superior force on the unarmed strikers.

On Nov. 15, 10 a.m., around 400 policemen again attempted to disperse around 4,000 strikers assembled at the picket line in front of Gate 1. Again, scores sustained injuries. The president of CATLU was hit on the head by rocks hurled from the ranks of the police, lost consciousness and sustained a gaping head wound. Despite this, the strikers stood their ground and the police were forced to retreat.

Bayan Muna party list representatives Satur Ocampo and Teddy Casiño arrived at the scene and held dialogues with the police. They frantically tried to reach Ms. Sto. Tomas and former Rep. Peping Cojuangco to ask them to hold off any orders for the police to use force once more since entire families of the workers were at the picket line and stood to get hurt. Ms. Sto. Tomas' cell phone was mysteriously cut off and became busy thereafter. Mr. Ocampo thus failed to reach her.

The following day, the morning of Nov. 16, Mr. Cojuangco met with Mr. Ocampo and CATLU officials at his Dasmariñas Village residence while refusing to allow ULWU officials in. (This was consistent with the stance of management that these ULWU officials were already dismissed from the company and could no longer represent the union of farm workers.)

The dialogue never got off the ground with Mr. Cojuangco insisting that the only time management would talk with CATLU was when they lifted their strike. Mr. Cojuangco was quoted as saying, "Bahala na ang DoLE d'yan."

Little did the workers know that those words of Mr. Cojuangco were a portent of things to come, a bloody scenario that they had been totally unprepared for.

Jan. 21-22, 2005

January 14, 2005

Retrograde justice

Some say the wheels of justice grind very slowly in this country. Others say these have stopped turning. Both views are wrong. For some time now, the wheels of justice have been grinding backwards.

Take the plunder case of former President Joseph Estrada. At the rate the Sandiganbayan special division has been stretching the bounds of the law by allowing Estrada's "house arrest" in his Tanay mansion, flip-flopping on its decisions such as allowing him to go abroad for surgery when he can very well have it done in Manila, and tolerating the obvious violations of the conditions of his jail pass such as entertaining his former Cabinet officials in a plush hotel in Hong Kong -- the suspicion of Plunder Watch and private prosecutors that a "not guilty" verdict is in the offing gains credence by the day.

Malacañang is no less to blame despite avowals of "non-interference" in the judiciary. President Arroyo has sent clear signals what her policy of "reconciliation" with the Estrada camp really means.

According to former Sen. Salonga, Mrs. Arroyo will do anything, including obstruct justice, to stay in power. Which is why "(f)rom the time she ascended to the presidency in January 2001, GMA has (had) no use for the rule of law...(s)he had always wanted Estrada to go scot-free abroad." This explains the indulgent attitude, lenient handling and even solicitous assistance given by Mrs. Arroyo's subalterns, Department of Foreign Affairs bureaucrats and the Philippine National Police to Mr. Estrada in his latest foray out of detention.

Precedents abound in this and past administrations that even when the police are miraculously able to arrest the perpetrator of a heinous crime and the courts somehow are able to send the guilty off to jail, the Chief Executive still manages to flout the law by quietly allowing lenient treatment and even granting pardon to the convicted rapist, murderer and plunderer when no one is looking.

The key factor to watch out for is how rich and influential the convict is, for that makes all the difference. See how no less than the Department of Justice secretary loudly and shamelessly bats for allowing convicted rapist and former congressman Romeo Jalosjos to be freed from jail for "humanitarian reasons."

On the other side of the same coin, we are witness to the high profile endorsement by Mrs. Arroyo of the peace-and-order methods of Davao City mayor Duterte, quite recently aped by the similarly gung-ho mayor of Cebu City. In a word -- vigilantism -- inspired, aided and abetted, if not organized and funded, by no less than the local government. Former Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena calls it "lawless violence sanctified."

Worse, much worse, the duly constituted authorities, the self-proclaimed guardians of the people's interests, have become the very perpetrators of further injustices against the victims of social iniquities. All too often the victims themselves are the first to be accused by the authorities as the guilty party.

Remember the Mendiola massacre of Jan. 22, 1987? Even before the official investigations could begin, the police and military immediately accused the peasant demonstrators of provoking the shootings and planning to attack Malacañan Palace; they promptly charged the leaders with inciting to rebellion.

Charging at rallyists with truncheons flailing, and then charging their maimed and bloodied victims with offenses ranging from traffic obstruction, illegal assembly, assault on persons of authority, to inciting to rebellion, have been the standard operating procedure of the police and military, applied with varying degrees of intolerance depending on the political climate and "orders from the higher-ups."

Remember Acsa Ramirez, the whistle-blower at the Land Bank, who was quickly transformed by the NBI to a suspected criminal and conspirator to spruce up a Malacañang occupant's sagging popularity. More recently, the ordinary folk scraping a living in the foothills of Sierra Madre, who lost their lives, homes and loved ones in the destruction that followed a series of tropical typhoons, were callously and falsely accused by the same Malaca§ang occupant of themselves causing the denudation of the forests and thereby causing such tragedy to befall them.

In the countryside and even in town centers and in the metropolis, ordinary peasants and workers, social activists and grassroots leaders are routinely harassed, picked up, illegally detained, tortured and summarily executed on the bases of mere suspicion or allegation of rebellion.

What is most alarming is when the government adopts a policy not merely of tolerating, but of encouraging such dastardly crimes committed by those tasked to protect the citizenry. Not only do the culprits remain at large, they are even handsomely rewarded with official citations and promotions.

A certain Col. Jovito Palparan comes to mind. Palparan's term as AFP commander in Mindoro Oriental was said to be the bloodiest in terms of blatant and systematic violations of human rights by the military. He was recently promoted to general over the vehement objections of victims and their families and despite a bevy of complaints filed at the Human Rights commission, Justice department and Congress.

It is not surprising then that as the smoke of the Nov. 16 bloody dispersal of striking workers at Hacienda Luisita had yet to clear, Mrs. Arroyo's Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rene Villa and, as expected, the honorable officers of the PNP and AFP, began pointing the accusing finger back at the dead and wounded workers and their supporters. The Arroyo government would have us believe that those at the receiving end of tanks, teargas, water cannons, and hundreds of police, military and security men armed with high-powered rifles had actually provoked the carnage.

As a fitting conclusion, we recently found out at a Senate hearing on the Hacienda Luisita massacre and related matters, that PNP chief Aglipay's worthy act of relieving the Central Luzon regional police chief of his post in the wake of the incident was only meant to promote the guy. Chief superintendent Quirino de la Torre is now PNP comptroller.

What more can we say.

Jan. 14-15, 2005

January 07, 2005

Incorrigible optimism

It's that time of year when one looks back with pride at one's accomplishments and looks forward with hope to what the new year has to offer.

It can also be the time of year when one reflects with regret and sorrow at what one did or failed to do, and cower in fear and anxiety about what the future holds.

What is one's measure? Is it material or financial success and professional advancement? Does one put a premium on personal fulfillment or on peer recognition and social affirmation?

Philosophically speaking, have we made this world a better place or have we given of ourselves to make others happy or, at least, less sad and miserable.

In more concrete terms, have we done our part to make this benighted country a little better instead of simply looking after our own parochial concerns or packing our bags for greener pastures abroad?

Have we actually recognized and acted on the potential for good in our perennially downtrodden people, rather than despairing and giving up all hope for meaningful change?

Social reformers, political activists and revolutionaries of all shapes and sizes are a special and curious breed. They are characteristically, sometimes incorrigibly, optimistic in the face of adversity and despair. This column is partial to that viewpoint.

For despite the natural and man-made problems that continue to afflict us as a people and bring crisis after crisis, 2004 was a year that brought some measure of respite from our travails as well as purpose in our struggle to survive and overcome the odds.

Of course, times are harder than they've ever been. Skyrocketing oil prices. Runaway prices of basic goods. Transport costs up. Soaring electricity bills. Water more scarce and expensive than ever. Tuition scandalously unaffordable. Health care only for the rich and insured. Layoffs.

Where is the ray of hope in an otherwise bleak economic horizon?

Our people are stirring.

Workers, including government employees, are asserting their rights and making their demands heard. Their collective cry: Give us jobs! P125 across-the-board increase in daily wage! P3,000 monthly salary adjustment for all government employees. Defend and assert the right to strike! Freeze oil price hikes! No to unwarranted power and water rate hikes! Junk oil deregulation! Nationalize the oil industry! Tigil pasada! (Transport strike!)

Landless peasants, dirt-poor farm workers and indigenous peoples in the countryside are shaking off decades of abuse and mind-numbing oppression. They are rising up to resist landlord domination, intense militarization and state terrorism. Revolutionary armed struggle rages amidst feudal exploitation, agricultural decay, rural degradation and wanton human right violations.

The middle classes are becoming more and more sympathetic to the cries for national and economic sovereignty and independence, self-reliance and social justice. The mesmerizing effect of the mantra of "free trade" globalization has vanished and no longer raises false hopes and expectations. They, too, are taking to the streets and joining the picket lines aside from speaking their minds out, filing their complaints and praying for better times ahead.

Why do we not despair that despite two "people power" uprisings, government is as inutile, corrupt and repressive as ever. Traditional politics (as we witnessed once more in this year's fraud-ridden national and local elections) remains elitist, rotten, and reactionary as it has always been. Our so-called democratic institutions such as Congress, the judiciary and the purported free press are monuments to greed, injustice and falsehood.

Our people are beginning to realize that their hopes -- for honest and effective governance, for economic development and prosperity and the freedom to chart our country's own destiny against neocolonial and other foreign impositions -- lie not with the discredited leadership of the traditional political elite with their big landlord and comprador big business character and composition.

There is a clamor for a more people-based political leadership -- one that is attuned to the aspirations of the masses for a better life, that is keenly aware of their hardships and daily struggle to survive and that can inspire, motivate and equip them to rise above their limitations and overcome obstacles to reach for their dreams.

That is what the 2004 elections, we believe, was all about. The people were in search for a national leadership that would be different and could once and for all institute basic reforms that would make a difference in their lives. FPJ, for the millions who voted for him, held out that hope.

Clearly, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) had not made that difference. She not only came from the same traditional politician or "trapo" mold, she embodied and displayed all that was detestable in that tradition. Arroyo's first term was marked by canine subservience to the US; the zealous protection and promotion of big business and landlord interest; a continuation of failed neoliberal economic policies; the resort to fascist measures and dependence on the unreformed military and police establishments to enforce anti-people measures and curtail democratic rights; and the monopoly of bureaucratic power and privilege to enrich her family, cronies and political favorites.

The people had had enough and thought they had voted Arroyo out of office last May. To their utter consternation and dismay, Arroyo proved that the immeasurable advantages of being an incumbent President -- including the freedom to use public funds for her presidential campaign in the guise of merely doing her job and the leeway to mount a massive cheating operation -- were unstoppable even by FPJ's overwhelming popularity.

Now GMA is back in Malacañang and the people are growing restive by the day. Malacañang is a picture of a government under siege. GMA's paranoia is matched only by the military's lousy intelligence work and the incompetence of the police.

Mrs. Arroyo must be contemplating 2004 with much regret and sorrow: What she did or failed to do so that now she must cower in fear and anxiety about what 2005 has in store for her and her government.

We, the people, on the other hand, must take stock of our own accomplishments and shortcomings, and look to 2005 with greater confidence and resolve to act and once again take our destiny into our own hands.

Jan. 7-8, 2005