Massacre of farmers 21 years ago drives fight for land reform

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am

Thousands of demonstrators yesterday commemorated the massacre of 13 farmers outside the presidential palace 21 years ago, an event that continues to haunt the government.

Among those who led the protest for the fair distribution of farmland was left-wing congressman Teodoro Casino who, as an 18-year-old, joined the march now known as the Mendiola Massacre.

Mr Casino recalled how he was part of a student delegation in front of 20,000 peasants and farmers near the palace. He remembers an explosion and then the shooting began. The person next to him, he said, was hit 'between the eyes'.

Mr Casino said it was important to remember the event as it continued to highlight the failure of four Philippine presidents to give justice to the slain farmers and to implement a genuine land reform programme.

He said his political party, Bayan Muna, called on Congress to enact a measure to close large loopholes in the agrarian reform law.

One of the most glaring is the provision that allowed vast sugar estates, including those owned by the families of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former president Corazon Aquino, to escape land redistribution. Most of the 1.3 million hectares that have resisted land reform are sugar plantations.

Yesterday's protest, attended by thousands of farmers, was peaceful, unlike previous commemorations. Ironically, this was due to the presence of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who was widely blamed for instigating the 1987 massacre when he was the Manila police chief.

Yesterday, Mr Lim finally broke his silence, claiming it was the marines who fired when a pillbox exploded. 'I said, 'Stop firing, stop firing', but they did not.'

No police or military official was held responsible.

University of the Philippines economist Solita Monsod said an in-house study by the Department of Agrarian Reform recently concluded 'that most private landowners, representing 82 per cent of the lands that should have been given to agrarian reform beneficiaries, are still holding on to their land 19 years after the law was passed'.