After expressing their misgivings over the Luzon-wide lockdown supposedly imposed to arrest the spread of COVID-19 infection, pro-peasant artist alliance Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA) condemns the militarist opportunism of the Duterte regime amid increased immobility among the people.

“The police and the military are taking advantage of the people’s inability to hold mass gatherings and on-ground protests,” declares Donna Miranda, one of SAKA’s conveners. “They are conducting attacks on the peasant sector in myriad ways—blocking farmers from taking their produce to city markets, killing peasant advocates, and sabotaging prospects of peace through genuine agrarian reform.”

Lockdown of peasant activists

On March 17, 25-year old Marlon Maldos of a Bohol-based activist theater group was gunned down in Cortes, Bohol. Redtagged ceaselessly by the 47th Infantry Battalion prior to his extra-judicial killing, Maldos had been a peasant organizer in Bohol and used his skills in dance and theater to expose the systemic ills of oppressive relations between landlords and farmers in the countryside. SAKA, through its Free the Artists (FTA) campaign launched with Sining na Naglilingkod sa Bayan (Sinagbayan) and Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP), has been demanding for the release of political prisoner Alvin Fortaliza, artistic director of Bansiwag, the activist theater group Maldos was part of and organized fellow peasants with.

“One doesn’t have to be in Luzon to experience the regime’s militarist lockdown,” observes FTA spokesperson Ara Villena. “The police and the military have long been curbing the mobility of peasants and peasant advocates. Alvin, for example, is not just on lockdown; he is literally locked up. And now Marlon, a fellow choreographer of Alvin’s in Bansiwag, has permanently been silenced with five bullets to his body.” Villena explains that Maldos, Fortaliza, and other peasant artists like them experience severe forms of repression for their advocacy of genuine agrarian reform.

#JusticeForMarlon: Activist-choreographer Marlon Maldos was gunned down on a national highway of Cortes, Bohol. (Photo from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.)

Aggravating poverty and violence

Peasants are also reeling from the effects of the lockdown in Luzon. In the National Capital Region where “community quarantine” was initially imposed, peasants find it difficult to bring their produce to city markets. Militarized checkpoints—whose gatekeepers are armed to the teeth but lacking personal protective equipment—may let big fruit and vegetable traders in, but keep small peasant producers out. Unsold, most of these products will be left to rot, unconsumed. In the city itself, demolitions of urban poor communities have been taking place, with informal settlers in Pasay City bearing the brunt. Most informal settlers come from peasant families who have come to the city to escape backward, often violent, feudal conditions of poverty and landlessness in the countryside.

Aggravating poverty and landlessness is the murder of senior peace consultant Julius Giron as he sought treatment in Baguio City. Attacking members of the peace panel of the National Democratic Front sabotages prospects of peace between the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). Both parties have agreed on the urgency of implementing free land distribution as a primary means of addressing the roots of armed conflict—but with the GRP’s extra-judicial killing of Giron, the peace talks are once again put on the line.

“Free land distribution is the first step of genuine agrarian reform,” says Angelo Suarez, another of SAKA’s conveners. “Genuine agrarian reform is necessary not only to a long and just peace, but to industrializing the country to develop basic industries, provide secure jobs with living wages, and sustain social services. When the GRP kills an NDFP peace consultant, it also expresses its disinterest in pro-people progress.” According to Suarez, by compromising the peace process, the Duterte regime attacks the peasant sector that has been counting on the GRP-NDFP agreement to distribute land to the tillers for free.

Miranda reiterates that SAKA’s positions amid the lockdown are a demilitarized healthcare and rights-based approach to the COVID-19 crisis, the rechanneling of state funds from militarization and counter-insurgency towards public health, and social protections for vulnerable sectors like the Filipino peasantry and urban poor.

Reference: Donna Miranda, SAKA convener – 0926 663 5606

SAKA - Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (Artist Alliance for Genuine Land Reform and Rural Development) is an anti-feudal alliance of art and cultural workers that support and advance the peasant agenda of genuine agrarian reform, rural development, and food security.