Nine sugarcane farmers who were slain by gunmen at a plantation in the central Philippines over the weekend belonged to a communist front and they may have been victims of factional infighting, the country’s military chief said Wednesday.
But authorities also were not discounting two other angles – that the violence allegedly carried out by about 40 unidentified men in Sagay city, Negros Occidental province, may have been perpetrated by a local landowner’s “private army” or by members of another group of land claimants.
The victims were all recent recruits of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NSFW), armed forces chief Gen. Carlito Galvez said. He alleged it was a “front organization” for the underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).
“According to the families, residents, and local authorities in the area, the victims are not workers in the farm or claimants to the land. The Department of Agrarian Reform has also claimed that the victims are not entitled beneficiaries,” Galvez said in a statement.
“They were brought there by their recruiters from the NFSW who left just before the shooting happened,” he said, adding “I am convinced that when the conclusive findings of the investigation have been released, the CPP-NPA and its puppet organization NFSW will have blood on their hands.”
At least three people survived Saturday’s attack at the Hacienda Nene – also known as the Hacienda Barbara – including a man whose 17-year-old son was killed by the gunmen.
Bobstil Sumicad, 52, said he escaped from the shooting alive because he had stepped away from the workers’ camp to relieve himself in a sugarcane field when there was a commotion followed by shots.
“Suddenly, I heard continuous bursts of gunfire that lasted for several minutes and, after a while, individual shots. I heard someone say, ‘You think you can escape?’ followed by a shot. I do not know if he was talking to my son,” the grieving father told BenarNews.
Sumicad said his first impulse was to rush to his son but realized that he may also be killed.
“So I hid among the cane and prayed my son would survive,” he recalled, his voice choking with emotion.
After the gunmen had left, he said he saw his son lying still, his hands over his face.
“He had been shot through the neck, abdomen and hand,” he said.
Before leaving the camp to go into the field, he said he told a companion “to be on the alert for anything untoward because there had been motorcycle-riding men seen nearby earlier in the day.”
The killings at the hacienda cast a spotlight on the Philippine government’s failure to implement a genuine and long-lasting agrarian reform program, which has been in place since the late 1980s but has repeatedly been countered by land owners.
The nine slain farmers were NSFW members who had taken over a portion of the hacienda that had been identified for land redistribution.
The gunmen who killed them may have been members of the Revolutionary Proletarian Army (RPA), a discredited faction that splintered from the CPP-NPA in the 1990s and whose members were known to work as guns-for-hire for hacienda owners, police had said earlier, citing an initial investigation.
Galvez, the military chief, accused the CPP-NPA of “manipulating, deceiving and exploiting” the farmers by pitting them against landowners and other land claimants in the area to cause a semblance of unrest.
But the New People’s Army, in a statement, denied that it had anything to do with the farmers, even while emphasizing that it supported their land claims. The hacienda was part of vast landholdings controlled by families who were politically entrenched in the area.
It said the families worked with the military and hired RPA members to drive farmer claimants from the area.
“They have used the RPA and SCAA to terrorize and murder defenseless farmers who stand against their despotic reign,” the NPA said, referring to a pro-government militia unit called the Special Civilian Active Auxiliary.
Attack not isolated
John Milton Lozande, a leader of the farmers’ union, blamed the government of President Rodrigo Duterte for the violence.
He said the local army commander had been saying since early this year that land cultivation areas they had been maintaining were under the control of communist insurgents.
Lozande denied this and argued the group had occupied unused areas in the farms to plant crops other than sugarcane.
“The goal of setting up land cultivation areas is to ward off the inevitable hunger brought by the dead season in the sugar industry on properties covered by agrarian reform,” he said.
Survivors of the attack denied the military’s claim and accused local police of planting evidence to suggest that the farmers were also armed.
Two of the survivors, Rene Manlangit and Rogelio Arquillo, said they had left workers’ camp to charge their mobile phones at a house near the highway when the shooting occurred.
Arquillo said he called a daughter who lived near the Sagay police station to seek help.
“We waited until the police arrived because we were not sure if the killers had left,” he said.
Saturday’s attack was not isolated, Lozande said. In December 2017, a female union member was stabbed to death by farm security men. Two months earlier, another member was shot in the head.
Froilan Gallardo and Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro City and Cotabato City, Philippines.