KIDAPAWAN CITY, Philippines –- Police authorities serving a dispersal order to thousands of farmers camping along portions of the Cotabato-Davao Highway in Kidapawan City were attacked by protesters, turning what was envisioned to be a peaceful dispersal into a bloody encounter that injured both farmers and law enforcers on Friday.
The commotion left one farmer dead and at least 33 others wounded, including 20 police officers.
Philippine National Police (PNP) Spokesperson Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor confirmed that two police officers are under critical condition.
North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Mendoza said at 10:30 in the morning, about 500 police officers tried to disperse the crowd blocking the major highway because of lack of permit to rally.
But she said the farmers resisted and attacked the law enforcers, triggering a commotion and a series of explosions.
A farmer died on the spot. His name was not immediately available as of press time.
Mendoza insisted the violence erupted when the farmers attacked the police. She said her directive to the police was to exercise maximum tolerance.
Mendoza said the police were serving a dispersal order because the rally and the assembly were considered illegal as the farmers have no permit to occupy portions of the highway.
The police, she said, was accompanied by social welfare workers who were to bring the children and minors out of the barricade.
Mendoza said the farmers were given permission to hold rally by the city government of Kidawapan only for Monday but the protesters, demanding government food aid after they became unproductive due to dry spell, remained in the highway, preventing the passage of government and private vehicles.
Senior Supt. Bernard Tayong, North Cotabato police spokesperson, said the police were observing maximum tolerance. But the protesters were aggressive and threw huge stones and metals toward the law enforcers. One of the farmers allegedly shot at a police officer who was injured.
”The first shot came from the protesters,” Gov. Mendoza told reporters.
For her part, Norma Capuyan, speaking for the militant group Apo Sandawa Lumadnong Panaghiusa sa North Cotabato, a farmers’ organization, said the police opened fire on some 5,000 farmers asking for rice from the government as they have nothing to eat due to dry spell.
Earlier, Gov. Mendoza refused to meet the protesters in the rally site, specifically in front of the Methodist Church. Instead, she waited for the protesting farmers’ leaders to come to Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista’s office for a dialogue.
A meeting happened Wednesday night but the farmers insisted the government give them 15,000 bags of rice or they will continue the barricade.
Mendoza explained that she could not give the protesting farmers their demand as part of the calamity funds had been allocated to drought-affected farmers while the rest are prepared for another unexpected calamity this year.
The wounded farmers are being treated at various hospitals in the city.
Dialogues between local officials and the farmers’ leaders are ongoing to normalize the situation.
The PNP is consolidating all information with regard the incident.
Chief Supt. Mayor said: “We believe that, in the spirit of thoroughness and fairness, a complete and accurate narrative must be constructed.”
He noted that two police officers are under critical condition due to head trauma, reportedly due to attacks initiated from the assembled crowd.
He said that PNP officers are trained to engage such assemblies with maximum tolerance as dialogue is always their primary recourse.
”We also note that officers who conduct Civil Disturbance Management (CDM) operations are instructed not to carry firearms,” Mayor said.
He added that other officers in the area not directly involved in CDM and who carry firearms are also trained to exert maximum tolerance.
In extreme cases, however, especially when the lives of police officers are under immediate threat, all of their policemen are trained to be vigilant and to act out their mandate to maintain peace and order in a calibrated manner, he said.
“We reiterate that an investigation is ongoing. We will update the public of any findings. The public may rest assured that any violation of PNP rules and regulations shall be meted the appropriate penalty. Likewise, we are committed to holding anyone responsible for this tragic incident accountable,” the PNP spokesman said. Edwin Fernandez/ PNA/ northboundasia.com