Philippine HiStory Today: Black Thursday in Mendiola
I did once… with my wife! But what I am about to relate to you today however covers everything: love, money and success. Human rights. It takes a brave heart to fight for something all your life, but this is what the Filipino farmers have been doing since the day they were born. Their life is not unique, they also struggle to bring food to the table like yuppies and professionals in urban landscapes do. But the difference is that their situation is more demanding physically and more desperate because not everyone is on their side — and in the course of Philippine history, sadly, the law has not been entirely on their side either. The result has been chaos.
I am talking about one dark day in a bridge in front of the structure that houses the most powerful person in the Philippines: the president. This is Black Thursday, the day rough gunshots and deafening silence descended over Chino Roces Bridge: 22 January 1987.
The Mendiola Massacre.
Sit back, hold tight and brace yourself for another round of history.
The story of land reform in the Philippines goes a long, long way back, with roots that can be traced to the colonial Spanish period.
During that period the encomienda system was applied, allowing only the elite members of society to own land while farmers were hired to work on the land. The system was very open to abuses. By the time the Americans came, the sharecropping system was implemented. Under the new system, tenants were allowed to use land provided they gave the owners a share of the crops.
The sharecropping system brought conflict between tenants and landowners in the country. The system had good intentions on paper, but its implementation in the field was never fair for the farmers. Many laws were passed and revised after the independence of the country from America. But they never really settled the issue.
The sickness of the agrarian reform lies in the fact that the lawmakers themselves had interest in land or were the landowners themselves. This meant that whatever they promise to the peasants, their interests came first in the law. In a bid keep true to their responsibility to solve land problems, the Marcos regime established the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). But the regime’s corruption and social injustices eclipsed the agrarian reform discourse. Fortunately, hope came in the form of the late President Corazon Aquino, whose central platform was true agrarian reform.
Now, I think we should clarify what ‘hope’ meant at that point. President Corazon Aquino was the only way out the Filipino people had from the tyrannical Marcos regime. She was the fresh new chapter everyone wanted to move on to. But this didn’t mean she would provide a solution for all prevailing problems, especially in land reform.
Aquino’s family background made this very clear: She was a member of the privileged and landed class. But more than that, her family owns one of the biggest haciendas in Central Luzon: the Hacienda Luisita. Not contented with her promises, militant farmers became more incensed and demanded genuine land reform immediately. Their demands:
- Give lands free to farmers
- Zero land retention of landlords
- Stop amortisations in land payment
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasants’ Movement of the Philippines) played a central role in the mobilization of impoverished and angry farmers to Manila. On 15 January 1987 the group encamped at the DAR in Quezon City to hasten talks on land reform. Jaime Tadeo represented the farmers while DAR head Heherson Alvarez represented the government. Five days later, Alvarez promised he would bring the matter up to the president in a cabinet meeting scheduled the next day. On 21 January, farmers barricaded DAR because they said Alvarez had been avoiding them, stopping employees from exiting the building.
22 January 1987
Tired of the slow government response to their demands, the farmers of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and members of the militant groups Kilusang Mayo Uno (May One Movement), Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance), League of Filipino Students and Kongreso ng Pagkakaisa ng Maralitang Lungsod (Unity Congress of the Urban Poor) marched to Malacañang Palace on 22 January 1987.
Heated words came from Tadeo, who almost threated blood in Mendiola, the street that leads to the gate of the Palace: ‘inalis namin ang barikada bilang kahilingan ng ating Presidente, pero kinakailangan alisin din niya ang barikada sa Mendiola sapagkat bubutasin din namin iyon at dadanak ang dugo’ [We took down the barricade [in DAR] as the President wished, but she also has to remove the barricade in Mendiola or else we will do that ourselves until blood will flow].
At around 1pm, 10,000–15,000 militants amassed at Recto Avenue near the Palace. Around the same time, Oplan Yellow was implemented: anti-riot personnel composed of police and the Marines were deployed around the Palace. Behind their line were army trucks, water cannons, fire trucks and two mobile units with tear gas gear.
Clashes were inevitable at such a tense situation. The government troops believed that the extremists have infiltrated the militant farmers groups and that there would be a real threat to the president. Before long the primary police line was breached by the farmers and, as the commission tasked to investigate the incident commented afterward, ‘pandemonium broke loose’:
‘There was an explosion followed by throwing of pillboxes, stones and bottles. Steel bars, wooden clubs and lead pipes were used against the police. The police fought back with their shields and truncheons. The police line was breached. Suddenly shots were heard. The demonstrators disengaged from the government forces and retreated towards C.M. Recto Avenue. But sporadic firing continued from the government forces.’ — Citizens’ Mendiola Commission
12 marchers were confirmed dead. Reports would soon add 1 more casualty to the incident. Of the marchers, 39 had gunshot wounds while 12 had minor injuries. On the government’s side, 3 had gunshot wounds while 20 received minor injuries.
The Citizens’ Mendiola Commission suggested that all armed personnel at the time of the massacre should be prosecuted. But, until today, justice for the massacre is yet to be attained. Alfredo Lim, who at that time headed the police forces in Mendiola, maintained that the Marines were responsible for the shooting. But with the level of confusion at that time, it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact people who pulled the trigger.
Journalists called that dark day in Mendiola Black Thursday. President Corazon Aquino’s administration has forever been tarnished by this single incident in one day. For years after the incident, farmers continuing to fight for agrarian reform convene and remember the incidents of that fateful day. The Mendiola Massacre became a symbol of the poor Filipino farmers’ grim condition and also became a rallying call to push for more changes in the land distribution system.
What happened on 22 January 1987 was a grave violation of human rights by government troops. I do wish the families of the victims get justice someday. But more than that, I hope that genuine land reform does push through in the Philippines. With another Aquino as the head of state, the Hacienda Luisita discussion is far from getting a solution. However, CARP has improved and many farmers have benefitted from it. But this does not mean that the problems of our farmers are over.
If the government keeps shutting down talks on reforms, and now I am talking about general changes we Filipinos want and demand from our government, we should never stop bringing them up again. I think it is every Filipino’s responsibility to make sure that our fellowmen are getting what they deserve: equal rights and opportunity in livelihood and economy. It is up to us to push for change in our government, and each one of us has a voice that, when added up together, can move mountains.
What do you think about today’s story? Where were you and how did you react when news came out of the massacre in Mendiola? Do you ever think our farmers will ever achieve genuine and complete land reform? What do you think can you do to help their cause? Share your thoughts by commenting below!