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The demand for land remains despite the bloodshed

Landless protesters mark 26 years since farmers' massacre

The demand for land remains despite the bloodshed
Farmers march to the site of the Mendiola Bridge massacre (Photo by Joe Torres)
Joe Torres, Manila

January 22, 2013

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The explosions, the tear gas, the bullets, the blood, and the cries for help are still fresh in the mind of peasant leader Danilo Ramos.

“It seems it only happened yesterday,” he says, adding that his youngest child was born a few months before the massacre occurred. “Now he's 26 years old,” Ramos says with a sad smile.

On January 22, 1987, thousands of farmers marched on the presidential palace in Manila to demand genuine land reform under the newly installed administration of late president Corazon Aquino.

Upon reaching the Mendiola Bridge that links the heart of the city to the palace, riot police and marines opened fire on more than 20,000 farmers and their supporters. 

After the shootings, 13 lay dead while more than 80 others were wounded.

One of the marchers was Ray Panaligan who was an 18-year-old activist. 

“We could hardly breathe as we ran toward a cloud of tear gas.... It was the logical choice, or be arrested, or shot,” Panaligan, now a photojournalist, says.

The massacre scuttled talks between the government and the communists. A year later, Congress passed the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. 

Today, 26 years on, and with the son of the former president sitting in the presidential palace, about 2,000 farmers again marched to the Mendiola Bridge outside the palace.

Antonio Flores, spokesperson of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, says 26 years after the carnage “justice remains elusive for the victims.”

“The free distribution of land was our demand 26 years ago and the first Aquino government’s response was a hail of bullets and a bogus land reform,” he says.

"Now under the administration of another Aquino we continue to demand land," says Flores.

The farmers say when it comes to land distribution the authorities prioritize large companies at the expense of farmers.

Danilo Ramos stands at the foot of Mendiola Bridge while speakers take turns lambasting the government for failing the farmers.

"Nothing seems to have changed," he whispers and wipes away sweat, or are they tears, that roll down his face. "Help me convince myself that there is hope." he adds.

Nardy Sabino, head of the Promotion of Church People's Response, who was standing beside Ramos, says: "It's one reason why the Church should journey with the poor, the farmers."

Panaligan, who helped two farmers find their way home after the massacre more than two decades ago, recalls overhearing one of the farmers saying: "If only the guerillas were here."

"At that moment I understood what armed struggle meant for people who continue to live deprived of the basic necessities in a humane society," Panaligan says.

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