The killing of nine sugar workers Saturday evening – including three women and two teenage children – brought to the fore the long-running struggle of Filipino peasants for land. Police reported that unidentified assailants shot the workers and burned their makeshift tents at a sugar plantation in Sagay on the central Philippine island of Negros.
The victims were members of a leftist labor group, the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers, who joined the first day of a bungkalan, a “land occupation” protest on part of the plantation.
The police have suggested possible suspects behind the killings. They include plantation owners opposed to the land occupation, and communist New People’s Army rebels trying to discredit the government.
Agrarian violence is not uncommon in the Philippines, which is still grappling with the landlessness that has been blamed for massive poverty that in turn has fueled a half-century-long communist insurgency. In Negros, there have been countless political killings attributed to landowners and the New People’s Army, as well as government security forces. Among the most notorious incidents was the 1985 “Escalante Massacre,” in which 20 peasants and activists were killed when police and military men opened fire at a protest march.
Security forces in Negros have also targeted peasants, sugar workers, and labor activists in the government’s counter-insurgency campaign, often accusing them of being New People’s Army members. Brig. Gen. Eliezer Losañes, commander of the Philippine Army on Negros, said in April that peasant occupations of plantation lands in Negros “are meant to provide logistics” to the New People’s Army. Sugar worker groups swiftly denounced the allegation, contending that their actions to forcibly occupy and cultivate land was for their survival.
Considerable international attention has rightly focused on the unending extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” But the Sagay Massacre highlights the fact that serious rights abuses in the Philippines are not limited to the “drug war.” The Duterte administration needs to promptly, credibly, and impartially carry out an investigation and appropriately prosecute those responsible – and act to prevent further agrarian violence.