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


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