TERRIBLE news greeted us this morning when word arrived that another lawyer serving the people was gunned down in Negros Occidental in the evening of November 6, 2018.
Atty. Benjamin Ramos, 56 years old, father of three, was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding gunmen around 10 p.m. near the public plaza of Kabankalan City while he was out having a smoke in between writing his pleadings for his cases.
The Secretary General of progressive lawyers’ group National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers or NUPL in the province, Atty. Ramos was known to give pro-bono legal services to peasants, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and mass organizations in Negros. He also represents the detained youth activist Myles Albasin along with five others who have come to be called as the Mabinay 6. He also was part of the legal team that represents the victims of the Sagay 9 massacre which took place in nearby Sagay City, Negros Occidental. Because of his pro-people stance, he was red-tagged in propaganda materials circulated by suspected government forces last April 2018 as a rebel sympathizer.
With the killing of Atty. Ramos, Negros has become the flashpoint and alarming showcase of the Duterte administration’s new pivot against peasant, indigenous, and legal progressive organizations. While the war on drugs remains unrelenting and has actually reached new areas of implementation including that of Cagayan de Oro, state agents are opening up a new war front gunning down activists and leaders of progressive organizations all over the country with the two provinces of Negros showcasing the more brutal and brazen of these ploys. The spate of killings in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental is especially of note where scores of leaders of progressive organizations have been gunned down.
The Sagay 9 massacre was particularly chilling and extremely violent. Peasant workers and their children who were engaged in land cultivation action to stave off hunger during the dead season were gunned down too while they were sleeping by suspected government-armed paramilitaries working allegedly for the local landlord. Their bodies were then doused with gasoline by the gunmen in an attempt to destroy evidence. The suspicion that paramilitary groups are behind the dastardly act is a theory that is actually shared by both local agrarian reform authorities and the local unit of the New People’s Army in the wake of the massacre in their released statements to the media.
But a new theory is being forced by government authorities right after President Duterte’s cancelled visit to the wake of the Sagay 9 victims. Apparently, it was the NPA behind the massacre who put the blame on government as part of the reported ouster plot. It is a convoluted and fantastic design that disrespect the dead and make them victims twice over.
But it makes sense now after the gunning down of Atty. Ben Ramos. The line provides the justification and pretext for this new pivot against the declared enemies of the state. Duterte’s dire warning against those who engage in land cultivation actions out of survival that they would be shot if they pursue this course of action just as he warned urban poor group Kadamay merely confirms this ongoing crackdown.
That an officer of the court is the target of this crackdown sends a chilling message to everyone who has staked their professions to side with the oppressed including teachers, media personnel, and doctors. It only proves that this administration has no respect for the rule of law and the principles of checks and balances whose democratic practices are supposed to reign in the excesses of the executive including its police and military.
For these to happen in the island of Negros is also revelatory. The landlords who are also politicians have been lording over the vast plains of sugarcane and plantations in the island for centuries. Here, they are lords, their property of thousands of hectares theirs and their families’ alone. When brave peasant workers challenge the order of things by occupying unused farmland so they can plant something for their sustenance while there are no jobs in the fields, the landlord will have none of that. When lawyers side with the small and the lowly, so they can protect themselves against the powerful and abusive by using the law, these upstarts must be taught a hard brutal lesson about who is lord in these parts.
For the president and the whole state apparatus looking on approvingly to this centuries-old system of injustice and even orchestrating a violent but cowardly pivot against unarmed activists, lawyers, and peasant workers who are resisting it, tells you which side he and his military are on. Atty. Ben Ramos took a side and he was felled, just like the Sagay 9 victims, because of their convictions.