Philippines: justice deferred in 2004 massacre

Some 500 people gathered Nov. 16 at a Central Luzon property of the family of Philippines President Benigno Aquino to commemorate a confrontation 10 years ago between government forces and striking workers, and to demand justice for the seven men killed. Protesters, all local rural workers, burned an effigy of Aquino riding a bulldozer. In what survivors group Ambala calls the "Hacienda Luisita massacre," police and military troops retook a section of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) sugar complex that had been occupied by members of United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU). Although security forces were acting on a court order, the strikers resisted, saying talks were ongoing with the management of both CAT and Hacienda Luisita Inc (HLI), the landowner. Aquino at the time of the massacre was a lawmaker representing the local Tarlac province in Manila, while also serving as manager of the Hacienda Luisita estate. The estate is owned by the Cojuangco family—that of the president's mother, ex-president Corazon Aquino.

The commemoration opened with an ecumenical service by leaders of the Catholic, Protestant and Aglipayan churches. The families of the victims came, many holding photographs of their slain loved ones. Ambala leader Florida Sibayan said she did not expect the government to move on the case with President Aquino in power. She told one reporter: "We were unarmed. We were violently dispersed as we demanded the application of genuine agrarian reform in Hacienda Luisita. Workers in CAT wanted fair wages."

In August, Ambala filed a petition asking the Office of the Ombudsman to reopen the Luisita massacre case. The petition was denied in October. Charges were initially dismissed by a local court in 2005. The Ombudsman in 2010 closed its investigation.

HLI lawyer Antonio Ligon said the killings had been investigated, finding no fault on the part of HLI or government officials. "As far as I know, President Aquino is not even an officer or employee of HLI. So it's baseless and unfair to put the blame on him," he said.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ordered HLI to distribute 4,500 hectares of the property under the government's agrarian reform program. But Ambala said only two families have received a 6,600-square-meter lot from HLI since the ruling. Charged Sibayan: "Instead of implementing land reform and the Supreme Court ruling on Hacienda Luisita, the Aquino administration has been very busy terrorizing and arresting farmers, bulldozing crops and destroying the organization's bungkalan [land occupation], burning homes, and erecting concrete fences around vast agricultural lands in Hacienda Luisita."

"All Luisita villages are still militarized. Impunity remains," she added "To grant justice for Luisita’s people, Aquino should face accountability—this criminal and corrupt landlord president must be ousted from power." 

Renato Reyes, secretary general of the popular organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), called Aquino a "haciendero," saying the president has done nothing to help his former district constituents. "Ten years have passed yet not one government official has been charged in court and made accountable for the deaths of seven people and injuries to scores of unarmed protesters. Aquino is now president yet he still thinks and acts like a haciendero." (Inquirer, GMA News, Nov. 16; Manila Sun Star, Nov. 15)