ESCALANTE CITY – Before James Yap married Kris Aquino, it used to be a town known by only one significant event in the 80s when paramilitary and State forces hosed down with bullets protesters on the second day of a three-day welgang bayan (people’s protest).
But today, for the first time in 34 years, the commemoration on the day of one of the deadliest massacres during the Marcos dictatorship was held here not with raised fists and the singing of the Internationale but with flowers and white balloons capped by a community singing of the reconciliatory song “Handog ng Pilipino Sa Mundo.”
Near noontime today, September 20, around the same time 10 people were killed and at least a hundred wounded in a hail of bullets from paramilitary forces 34 years to the date, Mayor Melecio Yap pointed out that justice was already had for the killed and wounded.
“All of (the suspects) have either been killed or imprisoned,” Yap said in Bisaya before hundreds of residents, policemen and soldiers who came to witness the wreath laying ceremony for the massacre victims.
On the the eve of the commemoration, activists also held a cultural night at the city coliseum, “the first time we are away from (the monument) that marks the sacrifice of our martyrs,” John Milton Lozande, secretary-general of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura.
As a Negros native and former chairman of the National Federation of Sugar Workers, Lozande spent his early activist years joining the yearly commemorations at the concrete sculpture monument of three raised fists.
Some social media accounts of activist groups described the 19 September activity as the “legit” one.
“Sa kabila ng pambababoy ng Rehimeng Duterte sa taunang kultura ng mga Negrense at intimidasyon ng AFP-PNP, naglunsad ng Cultural Night at candle lighting ang mga progresibong grupo sa pag-alala sa paglaban ng mamamayan at sa 21 martir,” the group Sinagbayan said in its Facebook accounts.
Queries sent by DNX to Lozande were left unanswered.
The September 20 affair today had a jovial atmosphere similar to a town fiesta replete with white balloons, school brass bands and celebrities – action star and Reserve Army Capt. Robin Padilla, and singer Cookie Chua.
A mass at the Coliseum kicked off the activity followed by a motorcade that ended at the memorial where the wreath was laid.
And if the Army was on a charm offensive, it made no secret of it.
At the city plaza, clean cut, good-looking Army officers, some women, mingled with the crowd, joking with peasants, sharing small talk.
Meanwhile, policemen with shields and rattan sticks scan the crowd for possible activists who might do a flash protest.
Only Army honor guards bore rifles, all the rest had pistols.
Padilla, speaking at the wreath laying, said he was already “blessed with a beautiful and young wife” but “I chose to become an Army reserve.”
“For what reason, I don’t know,” he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
The New People’s Army cannot just to say it wants to continue waging a war, he said, “because for how long will it last?” though he admitted to have fought for their cause once when he joined them in the hills.
He said he sought refuge in a rebel camp in Bicol when a court issued a warrant of arrest for illegal gun possession against him.
Yap called on residents who still have relatives who are rebels to come down from the mountains and support the peace-building efforts of President Duterte who, Yap noted, is a probinsyano.
Days before the commemoration, a three-day Northern Negros Peace Summit was held, drawing representatives from the military, government and civil society during which solutions to the raging insurgency and development problems were discussed.
To Sinagbayan, today’s government-led commemoration is a farce.
“Kahit na tinapatan ng AFP-PNP katuwang ang lokal na gubyerno ng “Northern Negros Peace Summit” na pawang pagbabaluktot sa kasaysayan ang taunang kultura na Escalante Massacre Commemoration,” it said in a Facebook post.