A Philippine congressional panel has officially rejected the appointment of Rafael Mariano as the leader of the Department of Agrarian Reform, putting an end to over a year of President Rodrigo Duterte's limited alliance with the country's progressive left groups and mass organizations.
Mariano's removal by a secret vote of the Commission on Appointments may spell the end of Duterte's initial pledges to popular organizations, peasant organizations and farm workers' unions to address the country's land issues and betrays “tens of millions of farmers” in favor of the country's “rich landlords and oligarchs,” Congressman Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao said.
For decades, Mariano – affectionately known to supporters as “Ka Paeng” – was a leader of the militant Peasant Movement of the Philippines or KMP, where he took part in major land struggles, survived the 1987 Mendiola Massacre, and in 2006 was detained for two months on rebellion charges by the Arroyo administration while serving as a congressional representative for Anakpawis Party-list.
During his tenure as DAR Secretary, Mariano backed attempts by landless farmers in his efforts to redistribute land, garnering significant popular support for agrarian reform efforts across the country. His work drew strong opposition from landowners and big agricultural corporations, whose representatives in Congress accused him of supporting the communist New People's Army and enabling "the militants to do lawless activities," as one landowner's daughter charged in the hearings.
The Federation of Agricultural Workers, UMA Pilipinas, quickly condemned the move, denouncing what it called the “U.S.-Duterte regime” as identical to prior administrations who maintained “landlord and comprador control of the economy at the expense of the majority of the people including agricultural workers.”
Mariano is the last of four progressive members of Duterte's Cabinet to be ousted from Malacañang after the powerful body stripped social welfare ex-Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, environment ex-Secretary Gina Lopez, and foreign affairs ex-Secretary Perfecto Yasay.
“From the very start, Ka Paeng Mariano's appointment to head the Department of Agrarian Reform was unprecedented,” Roland Simbulan, a professor in development studies and public management at the University of Philippines, told teleSUR. “For the first time, a farmer-leader was placed to head a department that had long been alienated from the peasants and used to implement a fake agrarian reform program.”
In 1988, former President Corazon Aquino – a member of the powerful Cojuangco and Aquino landowning clan – put forward the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which set the terms for the redistribution of public and private agricultural land to poor farm workers and peasants.
Major landowning families and firms, however, were exempted from the reform law and shielded by successive governments from redistribution through a complex system of laws that allowed for rampant illegal and semi-legal land grabs.
“Mariano tried to rectify that by opening the doors of the department to all farmers – literally – placing a moratorium on all anti-farmer policies and taking the perspective of landless peasants and agricultural workers on land disputes,” the professor added. “This, of course, did not sit well with the Philippine Congress which has long been dominated by landed interests, big hacienderos, and representatives and partners of foreign agri-business from the United States, Japan, Korea, and so on.”
In a statement by national democratic youth group Anakbayan the organization's chairperson, Vencer Crisostomo, noted that Mariano, like Taguiwalo and Lopez, don't deserve to be in the “reactionary” Duterte government, which he characterized as fascist, militaristic, unquestioningly pro-American and devoid of an appetite for change.
“While this was unfortunate, in a sense it was also a relief,” Simbulan said. “For progressives in the cabinet of a widely acknowledged murderous regime that (fights) the poor in the name of waging a war on illegal drugs are only being used to deodorize a tyranny that plans even to establish a dictatorship that will be supported by the U.S., China and Russia.”
The move comes as peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, National Democratic Front and New People's Army continue to crumble. Meanwhile, a growing number of Filipinos are voicing outrage at the Duterte government's declaration of martial law and counter-insurgency campaign in Mindanao, its statements that it would bomb Lumad childrens' schools as sources of “sedition,” and its war on drugs that recently claimed the life of 17-year-old Kian Loyd Delos Santos.
“There is now a need to create a very broad united front that will block the trend towards a tyrannical dictatorship and to resist attempts of Duterte to bring the Marcoses back to national politics if not to replace him in Malacañang as president,” Simbulan noted.
Congressman Casilao is now warning members of the militant landless farmers' groups to brace themselves and prepare for a “violent reprisal” from the landlord clans, who he expects to launch a broad counterattack following Mariano's ousting.
Like other mass organizations, the Federation of Farm Workers are signaling that they plan to continue their fight and that the task now falls on “the peasantry and the Filipino people to ensure that there would be genuine land reform through their campaign to dismantle haciendas and plantations nationwide.”