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 CasiƱo 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 DasmariƱas 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


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