Mendiola massacre: Issues not resolved after 25 years

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Twenty-five years constitute a long time and reaching it is usually deemed a milestone in the life of a person or a nation. Tomorrow marks the 25th year of the Mendiola massacre, but you wonder what it’s a milestone of.

For the peasant movement and for the Filipino people, January 22, 1987 remains a black day, a day of infamy for which there still has been no redress. No justice.

On that day 13 peasants, marching for agrarian reform with several thousand others, were felled by bullets near Mendiola Bridge fronting Malacanang. Graphically recorded in television-news videos and still photographs, that bloody incident became the first big black mark in the highly-popular, post-martial law government of President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino.

Yesterday, as they have done for the past 24 anniversaries, peasants from Southern, Northern and Central Luzon again marched to Mendiola, along with allied groups and the relatives of the massacre victims.

Reprising the events in 1987, they converged and camped out overnight Thursday in front of the Department of Agrarian Reform head office in Quezon City. (In 1987 the peasant leaders dialogued with then DAR Secretary Heherson Alvarez to convey their demand for the free distribution of agricultural lands. Alvarez promised to relay their message to President Cory in the next Cabinet meeting.)

To jaded, cynical observers — probably unaware that the issue does concern them — the protest action may appear ritualistic or boringly repetitive. Yet to the participants its essence goes far and deep, and their enthusiasm was undiminished.

The marchers raised three demands: justice for the massacre victims of 1987, genuine agrarian reform (subject of a pending House bill), and redistribution to the farm-worker beneficiaries (FWBs) of the Hacienda Luisita sugarcane estate controlled by the Cojuangco clan.

To put these demands in perspective, let’s briefly review what has happened, and what hasn’t, since 1987:

1. Cory created a Citizens Mendiola Commission that investigated the massacre. The commission recommended the prosecution of the police and military officers in command of the security units that blocked the marchers. Yet no one was prosecuted.

2. The victims’ relatives filed a P6-million damage suit against the government, but the Manila regional trial court denied it in 1988. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the RTC decision in 1993.

3. Cory declared agrarian reform as her government’s “centerpiece” development program. But the comprehensive agrarian reform law enacted on her behest in 1988 had numerous loopholes that spelled its failure after 20 years of extended implementation. Another five-year extension in 2010, tagged as CARPer, has been staggering around, half-dead.

The CARP allowed many exemptions from its coverage, involving hundreds of thousands of hectares. It also allowed alternative modes of implementation, such as the stock distribution option adopted for HLI.

4. In 2005, on petition by the farm-worker beneficiaries who claimed the SDO had not benefited them, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (headed by the President) nullified the scheme for HLI and ordered DAR to distribute the land. The HLI went to the Supreme Court and obtained a temporary restraining order against the DAR.

5. On July 5, 2011, by a 6-4 vote, the SC upheld the revocation by PARC of the SDO. But it also ordered DAR to conduct a referendum among the original 6,296 FWBs for them to “choose whether they want to remain as HLI stockholders or not.”

6. Last November 22, the SC clarified that decision. Through a unanimous vote, it dispensed with the referendum and ordered DAR to distribute the land to the 6,296 FWBs. It also ordered HLI to pay them P1.3 billion for the price of 500 hectares it had sold to a sister firm and converted for other uses.

However, the SC ruled that HLI was entitled to just compensation at the land price (P40,000/hectare) obtaining in 1989, when the SDO took effect.

7. Of late, HLI filed a motion for reconsideration seeking the following: a) retain the option for FWBs to stay as stockholders; b) allow them to sell the land they’ll receive; c) fix the compensation at 2006 prices (P500T-P1M/hectare); d) P1.3B should not be paid to the FWBs as it had been spent for operations; and e) require the FWBs to pay for the 240 sq.-m. homelots allotted to them in 1989.

Dear readers, be the judge. Are the Mendiola massacre victims, the peasants in the whole country, specifically the HLI farm workers, getting close to obtaining the justice they rightfully deserve?

An important postscript: The Mendiola massacre also fatally disrupted the initial formal peace negotiations between the Cory government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

The negotiating panels were discussing the agenda when news of the massacre was relayed to them. Finding the situation untenable for continuing negotiations, in view of earlier physical threats coming from the military to the members of both panels, they agreed to suspend the talks.

The talks never resumed under Cory’s watch.

Under P-Noy the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations, optimistically revived in February 2011, have languished since June. On the agenda are — you guess right! — agrarian reform, national industrialization and other socio-economic reforms.

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January 21, 2012

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