‘Freedom Park’ for protests proposed in Bukidnon capitol grounds

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/13 Sept) – The Bukidnon Sangguniang Panlalawigan has passed a resolution urging Gov. Alex Calingasan to designate a “freedom park” in an area within the property of the provincial government “where citizens can freely air their grievances and hold rallies and protests without need for securing permit.”

Sponsored by board member Jay Albarece, a lawyer who worked with labor groups prior to his election in 2010, the resolution was passed in the aftermath of a string of protests led by Kaugalingong Sistema sa Igpasasindog to Lumadnong Ogpaan (Kasilo) for 12 families who evacuated from Sitio Kirangol, Dao in the municipality of San Fernando after reported harassments from paramilitary groups in the area on August 20.

Calingasan issued Executive Order 87 on September 3 providing “stricter regulations regarding the assembly of individuals staging protests or creating infrastructures within the compounds of the provincial capitol which impedes the normal function of government offices.”

Albarece cited that Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provided that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“Although admittedly subject to certain limitations, these rights of expression, of the press and to peaceably assemble form the very foundation of our democratic society and must therefore be protected and upheld,” Albarece said in his draft, which was passed unanimously Wednesday.

He said to ensure the untrammeled exercise of these freedoms by the citizens without sacrificing public order, peace and security, as well as cleanliness in the provincial capitol grounds, “there is a need to designate a portion of the capitol grounds as a freedom park where people can assemble and speak without fear of arrest, dispersal, or prosecution.”

Board member Roland Deticio cited that Malaybalay City already has a freedom park and raised the possible problem of distraction in case a freedom park is designated when the province has formal functions like the Kaamulan festival.

Vice Gov. Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr. said the area can be assigned away from the city center even if he submitted that it is now up to the provincial governor to identify its location.

“There is nothing wrong if we have two parks,” he added.

Majority floor leader Nemesio Beltran Jr. also raised the problem of loud speakers, which Albarece said should be tamed as it is part of the limitations of the freedom. Board member Gordon Torres also clarified that the freedom to use the space does not also include putting up of structures.

The group backed by Kasilo wanted to put up encampments just like the earlier group who staged protests in front the capitol calling for justice for slain Dao village chief Jimmy Liguyon. The first group demanded the arrest of the suspect in the killing. The group has since returned home after the problem was endorsed for resolution with the traditional Lumad leaders.

The new group cried harassment when a squad of masked men reportedly destroyed their sound system, grabbed their streamers and tarpaulins on September 3. This sparked a bigger protest on September 5 from their support groups.

The protesters marched around Malaybalay and staged a stand-in rally near the provincial board building dismissing the EO as discriminatory and accusing the governor of siding with the paramilitary groups allegedly harassing the evacuees.

The evacuees used the stage at the capitol grounds as temporary abode.

Datu Nilo Cabungcol, Kasilo chair, told this reporter earlier that the provincial government did not grant them permit to hold a rally even if they came to Malaybalay to seek refuge after the reported harassments.

He cited that the residents, specifically Tessie Ombo, a small scale mining financier and a member of Kasilo, reported harassment and threats from the Salusads. The younger, Aldy “Butchoy” who heads a paramilitary group, allegedly came first demanding cash.

The father, Benjamin, reportedly came in the afternoon with about 20 armed members of the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and ransacked their tents.

Albarece also filed another resolution urging the provincial government, the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Army, and the Civil Security Unit to “exercise maximum tolerance in the treatment of rallyists or protesters in the provincial grounds and its vicinity.

“In our jurisdiction, the dispersal of rallies and protests, especially through violent means, in the absence of imminent danger to public order, safety, convenience, morals or health, has been repeatedly conceded as a clear violation of human rights,” he added in his proposed resolution, which was also unanimously approved. (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)