Luisita farmers led by the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (AMBALA) and the national federation Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) appeal to Pope Francis to look into the concerns of 491 political prisoners in the country who are now on hunger strike.
“Those of us fighting against landgrabbing and loss of livelihood are also targets of repression, harassment suits, illegal arrests and even extra-judicial killings (EJK),” said Florida Sibayan, AMBALA chairperson.
Sibayan is a survivor of the 2004 Hacienda Luisita Massacre. Under Aquino, Sibayan was repeatedly threatened by state forces, and was arrested and detained thrice for defending their land rights. She is currently out on bail.
Several activists and supporters of Luisita farmers also face harassment suits. Despite a 2012 Supreme Court ruling for total land distribution, farmers claim that Hacienda Luisita is still controlled by President Aquino’s family.
“Helping the poor is not a crime. Those who do are unjustly arrested under this repressive regime. We appeal for Pope Francis’s intercession to free our defenders,” said Sibayan.
UMA Deputy Secretary General Ranmil Echanis said that repression and criminalization of agrarian disputes and political offenses is part of state policy under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan (Operation Plan Cooperation).
“The growing number of political prisoners under Aquino is alarming. Majority of political detainees languishing in prisons all over the country are ordinary farmers, peasant leaders, community organizers and even professionals who went out of their way to help uplift the lives of ordinary farmers and calamity victims,” said Echanis.
Agricultural workers under UMA hope that the Pope’s intercession will also lead to the release of imprisoned peace negotiators and the resumption of peace negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF).
“Land reform is a major issue in the social and economic reforms (SER) agenda of the talks. Continuing agrarian unrest in the President’s own backyard, Hacienda Luisita, must be of immediate concern to both parties,” said Echanis.
Luisita farmers will join activities organized by the People’s Committee to Welcome the Pope (People’s Welcome), a network composed mostly of sectors from the poor and the oppressed.
Farmers will fast starting January 15 at the Liwasang Bonifacio Kampuhan to echo their appeal: “Pope Francis, Pope of the Poor, stand with us for land, justice and peace!”