By SHERWIN DE VERA
Under the Duterte administration, the country became the most dangerous place for land rights activists. The unrelenting attacks against advocates of land reform and rural development have resulted in the killing of 113 individuals since Duterte took office in July 2016, according to 2019 Global Witness. Farmers, fighting for their right to till the land and sufficient agriculture support, took most of the brunt.
In Ilocos, the administration’s Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict is going after peasant organizations, they accuse of supporting communist guerillas. For many peasant leaders like Antonino “Tony” Pugyao, the struggle for land rights, higher farmgate price, and appropriate services have also become a struggle to rise above state violence and fear.
On March 10, at around 1:00 pm, while at school, soldiers from the 69th Infantry Battalion led by Sergeant Bernard Valentino sought after Manong Tony’s son. They asked the kid about the whereabouts of his father. The soldiers also forced him to call his mother, Mel. After the call, the army men copied her number.
At 1:38 pm on the same day, Valentino called Mel and asked where her husband is. He also pressed for the reason why Antonino is not replying to their text messages and returning their calls. She did not answer the soldier’s queries; instead, she reprimanded him for harassing her child in school.
This incident is just one of the harassment Manong Tony and his family endured in a month. But who is Antonino “Tony” Pugyao? Why is the state so eager to pressure him to submit to its will?
A survivor of militarization
Manong Tony is the current chairperson of the Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation (Stop Exploitation), a regional organization affiliated with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.
The 56-year-old father of three is a member of the Isnag-Yapayao tribe in Marcos, Ilocos Norte. For him, military harassing civilians and families are nothing new. He has witnessed this most of his life, his family being a victim of forced evacuation due to the intense militarization in 1983.
“Manipud idiay sigud a lugar ti Cacafean, napankami idiay Brgy. Ferdinand duron iti nakaro a panangliplipit ken pamutbuteng ti military bayat ti panangiwayatda ti counter-insurgency program (From Cacafean, we went to Brgy. Ferdinand because of the intense harassment and threats by the military in the course of their counter-insurgency campaign),” he recalled.
In 1989, massive military operations against the communist rebels again displaced them.
“Daytoy agdama a pagnanaedanmi a Brgy. Cacafean ket dati a Sitio Villamar ken paset ti Brgy. Elizabeth. Ditoy ti nagkamanganmi idi kimmaro manen ti militarisasion iti baryomi. Dakami met a sibilyan ti pagbalinganda no adda mapasamak kanyada (The present-day Cacafean was a part of Brgy. Elizabeth called Sitio Villamar. We took refuge here when militarization intensified again in our village. The military turned their ire on us every time something happens to them),” he said.
Veteran peasant leader
Stop Exploitation, founded in 1988, originally means Solidarity of Tobacco Planters Against Exploitation. Manong Tony, who was then a member of Alyansa dagiti Mannalon ti Ilocos Norte (AMIN), were among the first members.
Stop Exploitation led the massive protest to increase the price of tobacco, mobilizing thousands since its founding, which culminated with the March 1992 hunger strike in front of Congress. They were calling for the investigation of the collusion of the National Tobacco Administration and tobacco companies to maintain the low price of tobacco.
“Kabarbaronak pay lang idi ngem nakipasetak idiay hunger strike. Ti malagip ko ket napwersada idi a mangted ti dakkel nga increase ken nagbalin a national issue dagiti parikut dagiti mannalon ti tabako gapu iti nasao a panagtignay (I was a new member when I joined the hunger strike. I remember the protest resulted in the provision of a significant increase, and the problems of tobacco farmers became a national issue,” he recalled.
In January of the same year, the government passed RA 7171, the law allocating 15% of the total collected excise tax from products derived from Virginia tobacco to local government units producing the crop. Stop Exploitation also noted in their protest that the fund should directly benefit the farmers in the form of production subsidy and livelihood projects.
“Sakbay pay ti pannakaputar ti RA 7171 ken dayta RA 8240, kidkidawenen ti Stop Exploitation nga adda koma mailattang a pondo manipud ti buwis ti tabako para kadakami a mannalon. Kinaagpayso na, uray no simmupportakami ti pannakaputar ti linteg, iti nasapa pay a paset ket nagbalaag kamin kasilpo ti posibilidad a maabuso daytoy ken pagtaudan ti korapsyon, kas ti mapaspasamak itatta
(Even before RA 7171 and RA 8240 became law, Stop Exploitation has demanded the allocation of funds from the excise tax for farmers. In fact, while supporting the passage of the law, we also warned of the possibility of abuse and corruption, just like what is happening now),” Manong Tony said.
Besides the issue of tobacco, Manong Tony was part of the campaign for better state support for garlic production in the region. AMIN was the led organization since Ilocos Norte was then the garlic capital.
“Nalawa ti napatignay idi kasilpo ti issue. Dimmanon a naiduron daydi sigud a Diputado Roquito Ablan nga agipila ti gakat a linteg kasilpo ti pannakabukel ti maysa nga ahensia a mangiwanwan ti industria ti bawang iti pagilian (Many were mobilized on the issue. It convinced the late Representative Roquito Ablan to file a bill to create an agency to administer the country’s garlic industry),”
In 1990, Stop Exploitation clinched airtime on local radio in La Union. Manong Tony was among those who became the anchor of “Bukel-Sirib ti Amianan.” In the program, they discussed critical agricultural issues, campaigns, and the gains of the peasant movement.
According to him, different sectors supported their campaign, especially the protestant churches in the region. A partnership between the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and farmers’ organizations birthed the Support Program for Rural Villages – Northern Luzon. Recognizing his skills in community organizing and education campaigns, the program proponents sought him to be one of its organizers.
His leadership skills and commitment to serving the people catapulted him to become part of the barangay council, serving his whole three terms as a council member from 2007 to 2019. While helping his barangay, Manong Tony continued to take part in the peasant movement.
Taking the helm
In March 2011, during its 8th Congress, leaders, and representative of the different farmer organizations elected Manong Tony as the vice-chairperson of Stop Exploitation. It was in this period that he took more role in leading campaigns and articulating peasant issues.
In 2013, he took the task of acting as chairperson, when the elected chair opted to rest and resolve personal issues. From the said year to the early part of 2017, he tried his best to fill the shoe of those he led before him.
During the period, Stop Exploitation campaigned and gained victories for free and better irrigation service, better contract terms to tobacco companies and production subsidies from the tobacco excise tax.
His performance both on the field, in the community, and across the negotiating table earned him the trust and confidence of the members of Stop Exploitation, which opted to elect him as chair during its 9th Congress in 2017.
In the same year, Stop Exploitation successfully led the demand for additional relief for the victims of Typhoon Lawin and the widespread drought that hit the region. Its district and provincial chapters also gained economic victories such as irrigation support from local governments, flood control projects to protect their rice fields, and lowering of land rent and interest.
Stop Exploitation also continued its primary campaign on better contract terms and higher tobacco prices. It also served as a support network for the demand to increase the buying price of peanut and corn. The organization also took on the call to push for the dismantling of land monopoly by launching a campaign in one of the old haciendas in Ilocos Sur.
The organization led by Manong Tony also held two dialogues with the provincial government of Ilocos Sur and the 81st IB regarding the harassments and red-tagging of its members. In both occasions, he spoke bravely about the atrocities committed against their organization and members under the government’s counter-insurgency program.
The following day after the March 10 incident, at around 6:00 pm, Valentino and four army men went to Manong Tony’s residence in Cacafean, Marcos, Ilocos Norte. They again wanted to speak with his youngest child. Traumatized by their earlier visit, the kid refused to talk with the military.
That night, Manong Tony texted Captain Rogelio Dumbrique of the 7th Civil-Military Operations, that he would not attend the meet with the army officer and Marcos Mayor Antonio Mariano on March 12.
“Pls tantanan nyo po ako. Kagagaling ko po mayor’s office nagbigay ng sulat informing na d ako pupunta bukas. Nasa bahay nanaman tropa nyo at gusto ulit kausapin anakko. Natatakot na ang bata! Hindi ako kriminal para ganyanin nyo po ako. May history sakit puso ang anakko so pls tigilan po sya (Please stop bothering me. I just came from the mayor’s office to submit a letter informing the mayor that I will not attend tomorrow. Your troops are again in our house at wants to talk again to my child. The kid is already afraid! I am not a criminal to be treated like this. My child has a history of heart ailment, so please stop bothering him),” he said.
According to Manong Tony, the postponement of the meeting angered Dumbrique, who replied: “Isumet lang nga pirpirdyem ti nagan ko ta awan ti maysa nga saritam apo (You are tarnishing my name, you have no word of honor).”
Hell-bent on finding Manong Tony and dragging him to the meeting, two vehicles containing troops from the 69th Infantry Battalion arrived in the village on March 12. Dumbrique led the soldiers who went to his house.
Not finding the peasant leader, the soldiers turned to his relatives for his whereabouts. Again, they asked for his youngest child.
The Stop Exploitation leader recalled that Dumbrique forced him to agree on the March 12 meeting. The army official called and talked to him and Mel on March 1 at Barangay VIII, Vigan City, where their office is located.
“Inawagan dakami ti maysa a tanod ken kagawad ket kinunada nga ni punong barangay ti mangpapaayab kanyami ngem idi simmangpetkami iti barangay hall ket awan met ni kapitana, ni Dumbrique ken dagiti kakadwana nga army ti sinangpettanmi. Inusarda laeng ni iti nagan ni kapitana ket naaayat met daydiay tanod ken kagawad a nagpausar
(A watchman and a council member told us that the local chief executive had us called, but when we arrived at the barangay hall, it was Dumbrique and his companions that were present while the barangay captain was not there. They just used the name of the chief executive and the watchman and the council member obliged),” he narrated.
According to him, when the punong barangay came in the middle of their talk, she was not aware of what was happening nor the agenda of the meeting.
“Adu ti ibagbagana nga front kami kano ti CPP-NPA ken adu ti ammoda ngem awan met ti maiparangda nga ebidensya. Dinakamat na pay ti nagan dagiti dadduma nga indibidwal. Ket kabayatan ti tungtungan, nagpicture ni baketko ken binalaaganna nga saan a rummuar koma ti Nordis manen ti picture ken ti pasamak
(He accused us of being CPP-NPA fronts and that they know many things but they cannot even show bits of evidence. He even mentioned the names of other individuals. While we were talking, my wife took pictures prompting him (Dumbrique) to warn her that the photo and incident should not appear again on Nordis),” he said.
Manong Tony said since it was getting late and the punong barangay was already urging him to agree with Dumbrique. The army captain also would not let him leave without giving his commitment and badgering him with questions; he said yes with reservation.
After the incident, he sought legal advice and decided to postpone the meeting. He followed the instruction of the lawyer to file a complaint at the Commission on Human Rights and ask for their intervention.
Targeted for “surrender”
Since the onset of the implementation of EO 70, the government has been eyeing the submission of Manong Tony, who chairs the Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation (Stop Exploitation).
State armed forces and the local government had closely monitored his activities since 2017 when he became a resource person for the Congressional Inquiry on the corruption of Republic Act No. 7171 funds in Ilocos Norte. The committee then was investigating the improper and dubious use of the fund by then Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos.
In 2019, during the First Quarter Meeting of the Regional Peace and Order Council (RPOC), the police and military identified him, along with other activists and a journalist as regional threats.
“Nariknamin ti panagirteng ti pammadakes ken red-tagging kanyami kalpasan daytoy a pasamak. Napandan sinagsagaysa abinutbuteng dagiti lider ti Stop Exploitation kadagiti komunidad. Simmarunon dagiti peke a panagpasurrender kadagiti kanengmi nga iprisprisintarda a supporters kano ti NPA wenno kameng dagiti rebolusyunaryo nga organisasyon (We felt the intensified vilification and red-tagging after the event. One by one, they threatened the community leaders of Stop Exploitation. It was followed by the fake surrender campaign, presenting our members as NPA supporters or members of revolutionary organizations),” he said.
He said the pattern is clear, the military red-tagged individuals and organizations. They exert pressure by regularly visiting the individuals in their homes, and deceive them into believing that once they give in, the military will leave them peacefully.
“Ti kinaagpaysona, saan a malpas idiay panagpirmada iti persona non grata wenno panagsapata ti problemada, ta usaren manen isuda dagiti military a pagparangen nga nagsurrender a kameng ti NPA, milisyang bayan wenno supporter. Paset daytoy a pamuspusan tapno dadaelen ti panagkaykaysa ti mannalon, ti nagan ti organisasyon ken agawen dagiti balligi a nagun-odmi (The truth is, their problems will not end with the signing of the persona non grata or taking the oath of allegiance because the military will also use them, present them as rebel returnee, people’s militia, or supporter. This is a means to destroy the farmers’ unity, the name of the organization and rob us off our victory),” he explained.
Manong Tony believes they are after him to put the final nail in the coffin for Stop Exploitation. He said the government is applying the same tactics hoping that he will eventually succumb to the threats and pressure.
“Panggepda nga ubraen kanyak diay inaramidda kenni Ptr. Jaypee Bulusan ken Mary Ann Gabayan ti Ilocos Human Rights Alliance, pagpirmaenda sadanto usaren a pangdadael ti organisasion, pangallilaw ti umili ken nayon nga accomplishmentda babaen ti panangiprisintarda iti media kas nangato nga opisial ti CPP-NPA kas ti napasamak kenni Mary Ann (They plan to do to me what they’ve done to Ptr. Jaypee Bulusan and Mary Ann Gabayan of IHRA. They will make me sign then use it to vilify the organization, deceive the people and add to their accomplishment by presenting me to the media as a high-ranking official of the CPP-NPA like what happened to Gabayan),” the Stop Exploitation chair said.
Manong Tony admitted that fears for his personal and family’s safety but stressed that bending to that fear will only make things worse.
“Tao tayo isu a normal ti makarikna ti buteng ngem kas tao, masapol met lang nga agpanunottayo no itandudotayo ti kinapudno wenno baybayantayo a tumaod ti kinadangkok ken nakarkaro a panag-abuso ti karbengan. No ipalubostayo n If we let our fear control our movement and principle, injustice will prevail. ga ti buteng ti mangidiktar ti tignay ken prinsipyo, lallalo nga sumaknap ti inhustisia. (We are but humans that feel fear, but also as humans, we should also think about whether to pursue what is just or let violence and human rights violations flourish. If we let our fear control our movement and principle, injustice will prevail),” he said. # nordis.net