Rethinking Society Over a Cup of Coffee

Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Death

by J. E. Gonzales / AKBAYAN

It has been almost forty days since our subdued sense of victory over the passage of the CARP Extension with Reforms (CARPER) bills in both the Senate and the House of Representative was overcome by the shock, grief and anger over the meaningless murder of Ka Rene Peñas. It was a victory that Ka Rene was waiting to celebrate after a protracted and uphill struggle within and outside the halls of Congress. It was a victory that was almost stolen from those who have labored and sacrifice for CARPER by the bullets that riddled Nong Rene’s body,

Nong Rene’s journey towards this victory was long and full of hardships and frustrations. The land titles to the 144-hectares land in San Vicente, Sumilao, Bukidnon was supposed to give Nong Rene and the Sumilao farmers new hope of a better life. The case of the Sumilao farmers was a simple one but because justice was caught in the claws of the rich, the titles that were awarded to them became the key of over twelve years of struggle for the land that they reclaimed.

It would have been easy for them to give up and live the life that they were accustomed to all their as landless farmers scratching a living out of the shoulders of the highway in San Vicente. But they chose to cling on to hope and fight for what is just and what is right. Hence their case was transformed from one that is simple into an epic struggle that led to 28 days of hunger strike, countless days and nights of sleeping in the streets of Manila knocking at the hearts of the Supreme Court justices, countless tears falling from the frustration and despair over a justice system biased against the poor.

It led to the epic 1,700-kilometer walk of the Sumilao farmers that won the hearts of even ordinary people, the religious and the young. It has put tremendous pressure on those in power and the corporate giant San Miguel Corporation. The story of the struggle of the Sumilao farmers made it to the history books and is carved in the hearts of those, like us, who witnessed their courage, perseverance and their faith in active non-violence. This epic struggle did not only end in reclaiming of the land of the Sumilao farmers, it made farmer leaders like Nong Rene look beyond the barbed fences of the 144-hectare land that they are reclaiming and see the struggles of other farmers beyond the confines of their claim. Their hardships and sacrifices made Nong Rene realize that the cause of agrarian reform is far larger than their own struggle and did not end when they eventually broke down the fences and when he held the soil in the palm of his hands. It deepened Nong Rene’s understanding of agrarian reform and steeled his conviction to fight on not only for their own land but to join the struggles of others.

Hence, Nong Rene led the 444-kilometer march of the Banasi farmers of Bula, Camarines Sur in December 2008. It also led the Sumilao farmers to support the struggles of other farmers like the Calatagan farmers of Batangas. It brought Sumilao leaders like Nong Rene and Yo-yoing Mirada into the center of the struggle for the reform and extension of CARP together with other farmers groups and agrarian reform advocates. Ka Rene and the Sumilao farmers, together with other farmers from the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA) and the Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan (PKSK) and agrarian reform advocates from the Reform CARP Movement (RCM) launched the Lupang Hinirang, Lupang Hinarang Farmers’ Pilgrimage for CARPER which began in Sumilao and retraced the steps of the Sumilao farmers’ walk to Manila. They stayed on to campaign for CARPER even through the sine die recess of Congress, moving from school to school, walking to different parishes and urban communities in Metro Manila. They spoke to mayors and councilors, barangay officials, student leaders, parish priests and parish councils. They met with leaders of different religious groups to bishops and ordinary church-goers alike.

When Congress resumes its sessions, they were constantly present in the gallery pr outside the gates urging legislators to resume the debates on CARPER. When Congress delayed the deliberation on CARPER, together with other farmers from RCM, they held a sit-down strike in the House of Representatives. When the House refused them entry they held vigils outside its gate. They never wavered; they never let the pressure slacken despite being driven away by water cannons and riot police. They prayed and they chanted and they never gave up. Nong Rene was in the midst of all these. Encouraging and inspiring others, reassuring those who shake in fear at the sight of the helmeted policemen armed with riot shields and truncheons. Nong Rene was a constant presence in the frontlines. One of his final acts in Congress was to attempt to set up a camp outside the South Gate. Despite being warned that dispersal was a certainty, he did not budge. The camp he led to build was immediately dismantled by riot police using truncheons and water cannon. He did not give up, the farmers held vigil at the gate without the tents armed with just prayers and rosaries and their strong faith.

Nong Rene learned about the passage of HB 4077 in the House of Representatives in Sumilao. He had to return home on May 30 to attend the session of the Barangay Council as a caraway. Upon hearing the news he triumphantly announced to his family and fellow farmers: Nidaug na ta! (We have won!). Two days later, he was shot to death.

On July 14, 2009 we will commemorate the 40th day of Nong Rene’s death. Join us in remembering Ka Rene and in celebrating his life and our victory in the struggle to pass the CARP Extension with Reforms. Be one with us in a tribute and celebration:

Buhay, Paglalakbay at Tagumpay: Isang Pagdiriwang at Pagpupugay na
Alay para kay Nong Rene Peñas
July 14, 2009 / 9:00 – 11am
Ateneo de Manila College Chapel, Gonzaga Building
Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Hts., Quezon City

To this day, the murder of Nong Rene remains an unsolved mystery. As in other murders of peasant leaders, perhaps we may never get to know the truth. The cowards responsible for his death may never be uncovered. As we push on in search of the truth and justice one thing is certain: In life Nong Rene was a valiant, brilliant and courageous peasant leader who struggled for the land of the Sumilao farmers and other farmers, an imposing figure in the struggle for the reform and extension of CARP; in death Ka Rene has become an icon of the continuing struggle for agrarian reform.

As we have snatched CARPER from the claws of defeat, let us snatch victory from the jaws of death. Let us mourn his death but celebrate his life and our victories.