Indian Catholic News

Justice eludes victims of 1987 Manila massacre

Families pray new administration will stick by poor by granting land, punish those behind protest killings.

Effigies of 13 victims of the massacre of protesting farmers in 1987 are laid on the street outside the gates of the presidential palace in Manila during a protest. (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

On Jan. 22 each year, Tessie Arjona, 58, picks up a framed photograph of her husband, marches to the gates of the presidential palace in Manila, and, with fellow farmers, cries for justice.

Tessie has been doing it for since becoming a widow in 1987 when she, with her husband, Danilo, marched with some 20,000 farmers to the gates of the palace to demand land.

There was no intention of violence, says Tessie. The marchers had just arrived at the foot of a bridge leading to the palace. The program had not even begun. When some protesters tried to pass through a police barricade, soldiers opened fire.

The peaceful protest turned into a riot. The helpless farmers ran as fast as they could, but the bullets were faster. There was blood on the street. Dozens were injured, and 13 farmers were killed, including Danilo, Tessie's husband.

Tessie hails from the town of Liliw, in Laguna, a province a few kilometers south of the Philippines capital. A trip to the city, however, is a struggle that requires time, money, and effort, especially for poor farmers.

But on that fateful January day, Tessie decided that there's no obstacle more difficult to overcome than their poverty. So she and her husband went to the city to join the protest march. Tessie came home alone.

Thirty years have passed since that tragic event, but nothing has changed in Tessie's life. She continues to till a piece of land she does not own. Her meager farmworker income is only enough for a hand-to-mouth existence.

Tessie accepts laundry work from neighbors to augment her US$14 weekly income. "There has been no progress after 30 years," she says. "Our problems are the same."

The farmers still have no land after several changes in government. There was no punishment for the policemen and soldiers responsible for the massacre at the palace gates. The victims and the families of those who died did not receive any compensation.

"No one was arrested and indicted for the massacre," says Antonio Flores, secretary-general of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines. "Landlords are still in control of vast tracts of land that remain intact despite the passage of a land reform law.

Until justice is achieved

Of the families of the 13 farmers who were killed that day, only Tessie goes to the palace gates each year on the anniversary of the massacre.

She visited the families of the others who died before going to the city this year, but all of them were either sick or too old to walk. Some said they have left their hope for justice with God.

For Tessie, prayers are not enough. "Faith alone will not accomplish anything," she says. The widow vows to keep fighting until the last days of her life.

"I will keep on showing up every year until justice is served, until Danilo's death is avenged," says Tessie.

However, this year there is a glimmer of hope for the widow.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power last year, appointed a peasant leader, Rafael Mariano, as head of the Department of Agrarian Reform, the agency responsible for land distribution.

On Jan. 22, the anniversary of the massacre, the agrarian reform secretary proposed declaring a "National Farmers' Recognition Day" to honor the fallen farmers.

"We will continue to fight for genuine agrarian reform to make sure that lands will be given to our farmers free of charge," says Mariano.

Tessie says if Duterte and Mariano are "truly for the poor like us," they will heed the demand of the farmers for justice.

"They will give us our demands," says Tessie.

Source: UCAN

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