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Remembering the Escalante massacre

/ 07:44 AM September 19, 2011

Romulo Sisno, a 25-year-old instructor was in his third year teaching social science subjects at the Mount Carmel College in Escalante, Negros Occidental when he joined the Welga ng Bayan in Sept. 18, 1985.

Now in his 50s, Sisno vividly remembers the mass protest that ended in a grisly massacre which claimed the lives of 20 people and wounded 24 others. The Escalante massacre, called Escam for short by the people of Negros, or “Bloody Thursday,” is remembered every Sept. 20.

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I met Romulo Sisno two weeks ago in the course of doing documentation for the cooperative network VICTO National. The Escalante Public School Teachers and Employees’ Cooperative is an affiliate of VICTO and the numerous awards for EPSTEMPCO by regional and national coop organizations, and especially by the Land Bank of the Philippines indicate its outstanding performance as a coop. Sisno sits in the board as chairman of the local Coop.

Most of our interaction was about EPSTEMPCO’s best practices. The Coop grew from a teachers’ enterprise with 64 founding members and P6,400 capital build up. The birth of this coop is tied with the education given by Dutch priests belonging to the Order of Carmelites who arrived in the town in the late 50s. The Carmelites taught the teachers the cooperative system but unfortunately the very first teachers’ cooperatives flopped and the poor had to turn to usurious lenders. Sunk in a deep hole of indebtedness and poor living conditions, the teachers decided to give the cooperative system another try in 1992, and after a long struggle they prevailed. EPSTEMPCO stands today as one of the most successful community based coops, with close to 10,000 members and total assets of almost P85 million.

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Our interaction took a different turn when I learned that Sisno was in the middle of the Welga ng Bayan in Sept. 18, 1985. During martial law, Marcos crushed dissent through militarization. As the military made their presence felt (read: abuse), the influence of militant groups also grew side by side with the discontent of the poor.

In the land of the hacienderos and sacadas, the gap between the rich and the poor is like a chasm. The feudal system advanced unjust practices and in the dying days of martial law, the atmosphere felt like deliverance was at hand if the poor masses would unite and die for the cause of freedom and justice if need be.

Sisno was a son of sacada parents. He grew up weeding, plowing, planting and cutting down sugarcane along with his parents and other family members in the vast sugarcane plantations of Negros Occidental. Once he resolved to be educated despite the subhuman conditions, there was no stopping him. His perseverance paid off when he earned a commerce degree from the Mount Carmel College of Escalante.

Sisno told this corner that he was among thousands of sugar workers, mostly sacadas, farmers, fishermen, students, professionals, urban poor and church people from Escalante and the neighboring towns of Toboso and Calatrava who took part in the historic protest that ended in a bloody carnage.

Ase we know, the Escalante massacre shook the whole world and put more pressure on the Marcos government. Five months later, a bloodless uprising forced Marcos to step down ending 14 years of martial rule.

Forty-five people, mostly members of the military, police, and paramilitary forces, including civilian government officials led by then Escalante mayor Braulio Lumayno and former Negros Occidental governor Armando Gustilo were charged with various counts of murder and frustrated murder. Only 28 mostly members of the police and the military were arrested and charged. The rest went into hiding including Lumayno. The Sandiganbayan tried the case and in 1994 ruled that only three low ranked policemen were guilty. In 1996, the Supreme Court upheld the decision and sentenced the three to a prison term from a minimum of seventeen years and one day of reclusion temporal to a maximum of reclusion perpetua for each of the 16 cases filed against the policemen. According to reports, the three were released on parole in 2007.

Twenty-six years have passed since the 1985 “Bloody Thursday.” In 1993, Rolando Ponseca, a member of the cause-oriented group Bayan Muna became mayor and under his administration, he built a monument to honor those who participated and perished in the massacre.

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In 2001, the town that bore the psychological wounds of martial law became a city. The old municipio was torn down to make way for a gleaming City Hall. In the meantime, Romulo Sisno went on to become a pillar in the Escalante Public School Teachers and Employees Cooperative (EPSTEMPCO). Not only that, he also sits in the VICTO Federation as its national vice chairman.

The plight of the poor will never be addressed without the support of other sectors of the community. The government should take seriously its mandate to govern honestly and deliver basic services like education, health and equal job opportunities to the poor. However, and this is proven by the example of Romulo Sisno, these services cannot be optimized if the poor remain passive, or if they resort to radical means.

The cooperative system offers a way out of poverty.

EPSTEMPCO, the once fledgling teachers’ cooperative, showcases the value of hard work, honesty and fortitude. Tied with creativity and a readiness to embrace new technology, the coop system will empower our people and help them rise from poverty.

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