I write this not for my activist friends who are already partisan, but for my other friends and possible readers who may not be sympathetic to the plight of the Silverio Compound residents that faced off with the police in today’s violent demolition.
I just came from the Silverio compound with Rep. Satur Ocampo, Rep. Paeng Mariano and a contingent of lawyers, doctors, human rights advocates, students and church people to investigate the violent incident which led to the death of at least one person and caused injury to scores. When we arrived there, we learned that 33 had been arrested and detained during the police operations. Eight of those arrested were minors, 2 were women.
I am not well-versed with the legal issues and history of the dispute between the residents and the city government but surely the residents were convinced that they had to stand their ground and that they were justified in their resistance.
When we arrived at the Silverio compound, we were met by the local leaders and residents gathered outside near the media tents. The police were no longer there. We were informed that there were people still injured inside the community but were too afraid to go out for fear of being arrested.
We were told that the land of the Silverio compound is the subject of an expropriation case by the City Government during the term of Mayor Joey Marquez. The City Government had reportedly deposited P10.4 million so that the LGU can acquire the lot and enable the residents to pay for their property through a mortgage program. So the residents were not really illegal occupants. They had the backing of a previous administration’s city ordinance. They were willing to pay for the property so that they could have housing security.
But it seems that the current regime of Mayor Florencio Bernabe has other plans. He said in media interviews that his administration was planning to build medium rise buildings for more than 1,000 families. The residents do not seem impressed with the plans. One resident, whose son was shot during the protest, said that he cannot afford to pay for the condo that would be set up. “Tuyo nga ang ulam ko, paano ako magbabayad ng condo?” he said.
The condo he was referring to seemed to be linked to SMDC of Henry Sy. The SM management has denied any involvement in the dispute. However, the local mayor keeps on mentioning plans for medium rise buildings in the area. If not SM, are there private developers that have been contracted to build these medium-rise buildings? (Incidentally, there’s an SM Hypermarket right in front of the Silverio compound.)
SM released the following statement which curiously does not disclaim that they have a possible project in the area.
“1. SMDC is not the owner of the Silverio Compound;
2. SMDC is not in any way involved in the demolition of existing structures in the Silverio Compound or in the dispersal of the protesters.”
To reiterate the position of the residents, they were willing to pay for the land where their houses are built, but they cannot afford the housing that the city government is planning.
It is not clear what it is that made the demolition today so urgent? The mayor, in his interviews said that the target of the demolition was the local talipapa (market). However, the residents say this would only pave the way for more demolitions.
When we asked what triggered the violence, this is what residents told us. During the standoff, the residents blocked the streets and put up barricades. Negotiations were made so that one lane would be opened to motorists. The leaders of the residents were agreeable to the proposal; they just wanted to put it in writing. My understanding was that they were seeking ways to lessen the tension.
Even before the leaders could present their draft, tear gas canisters were fired upon the residents. I asked several random people what triggered the violence and everyone said that it started with the firing of tear gas into the protesters. The residents were fairly consistent with their reply. They said that the protesters only started throwing rocks after the firing of tear gas.
Shots were fired in the course of the confrontation. TV footages showed a SWAT team member firing his automatic rifle, not in the air but apparently in the direction of the protesters. Then we saw the footage of a man sprawled on the streets, believed to be dead. Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang told Yahoo! Southeast Asia that Arnel Leonor Tolentino, 21, died from a gunshot wound in the head.
He was not the only one with gunshot wounds. In our visit to the community, we encountered a 16-year old male who got hit in the arm by a bullet. His x-ray results showed that he suffered a fracture in his left arm. He was brought to a local hospital but had to return home since his parents did not have the P15,000 needed for his operation. He was very weak when we saw him. Doctors from CHD assisted him and took the initiative of bringing him to another hospital through the assistance of Anakpawis. There were other injured residents examined by CHD, many fearful that if they went to a hospital with their injuries, they might be arrested.
Many of those arrested were beaten up while in police custody. Videos have appeared on TV showing police brutality at its worst. One man who had the misfortune of going through a line of policemen was hit several times by the policemen he passed.
During our visit to the site, we saw spent cartridges that the residents collected from the streets after the shootings. All of the shells that I saw were 5.56mm cartridges used in M-16 rifles. Now unless the residents of Silverio had been carrying long firearms during the demolition, these cartridges could only come from the PNP.
It is really insulting when the Mayor claims that the police were firing blank cartridges. How does that explain the fact that residents suffered gunshot wounds from REAL bullets?
In the first place, the police shouldn’t have brought guns and they shouldn’t be discharging their weapons in such situations. There have been stronger resistance in other demolitions, such as those in Corazon de Jesus in San Juan where Molotovs were used, but we did not see indiscriminate firing on protesters. The Silverio demolition is significant because of the disproportionate use of force, the use of firearms, and the resulting death and injury.
When I heard the news of the violence, I immediately recalled the experience of Hacienda Luisita. I feared that a whitewash would take place given the statements of the Mayor. In the Luisita massacre, the authorities claimed that farmers were armed, that violence started from the ranks of the farmers and that the farmers were infiltrated by “outsiders” who were agitating them.
The same storyline is now being repeated by the authorities even before an investigation into the incident has taken place. Authorities are saying that residents were armed too, that they started the violence and that they were infiltrated by “outsiders”. The idea here is simple. Blame the victims and problem goes away.
Those saying that residents are as much to blame as the police lose sight of the reality that mayor has all the resources of government at his disposal, armed personnel included, while the residents have nothing but collective action to defend themselves. It was the government forces who should have exercised restraint upon sensing the strong resistance from the people. It was government that was in a position to avoid the outbreak of violence by simply NOT pushing the demolition on that scheduled date.
This is not the first violent demolition under the Aquino government. There have been many. It should make us ask the question, why is it that residents risk life and limb to defend their homes? Are they not convinced with government promises of relocation and housing? Surely something is wrong with how the government is addressing the housing needs of the residents they are targeting with displacement. And if these things happen again and again, shouldn’t the government reexamine its housing program?
Finally, we should ask ourselves, will we really allow the police to get away with this one? Will we allow a local official to simply shrug off serious human rights violations as if they never happened?
We should all be indignant.