MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino yesterday took time out from his United States schedule to intervene in the violent demolition of squatter shanties that left several people hurt in Barangay Bagong Pag-asa, Quezon City, on Thursday.
Mr. Aquino ordered the National Housing Authority (NHA) to suspend the relocation of families situated in the 340-hectare North Triangle property until a “comprehensive plan” was crafted, said Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa.
The order came after hundreds of squatters blocked Manila’s main thoroughfare for hours on Thursday to resist the demolition of their homes.
“The President is saddened by the events that transpired and has ordered the NHA to ensure that any future relocation plan be implemented peacefully,” Ochoa said.
Several policemen and squatters were injured and traffic snarled for hours as the protesters barricaded part of the road and hurled rocks at police.
The violence shocked the city and prevented the demolition of most of the shanties.
A court late Thursday issued an order suspending the demolition but the housing authority said it was confident the order would soon be reversed so that the demolition could continue.
Some 6,000 families are opposing their planned relocation to Rodriguez town in Rizal to make way for the development of the squatter colony into the Quezon City Business District.
“While the President respects the families’ right to oppose their relocation to Rizal, he nonetheless calls on them to exercise their right to protest in a peaceful manner,” Ochoa said.
“He has likewise instructed all authorities to exercise maximum tolerance and is confident that the issue will be resolved by the parties involved.”
No law and order
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima herself said there was an apparent “breakdown of law and order” when a riot erupted as thousands of illegal settlers thwarted efforts of a demolition team to tear down their homes in Quezon City on Thursday.
In a news conference Friday, De Lima said while watching the riot unfold on a television news program, it appeared that the Philippine National Police (PNP) had again failed in its duty to prevent violence from erupting.
It was all too similar to the Aug. 23 hostage crisis which ended in eight Hong Kong nationals and their hostage-taker, a dismissed police officer, dead.
She said while the police keep its hands off operations such as demolition of shanties and rallies, as a “general rule,” the PNP should have immediately done something the moment residents became violent and started throwing stones at the demolition team.
“[On] the whole stretch of Edsa, a busy thoroughfare, there was a breakdown of law and order because there was a seeming absence of critical police presence,” De Lima said.
She was “alarmed,” that the incident went on for several hours and only a “small contingent” of policemen responded to the incident.
‘Where were they?’
“Where were they? Who was in charge?” De Lima said, realizing that she was treading an area no longer her responsibility.
“While the DOJ is a principal law agency of government, the PNP is not under the DOJ. But I cannot just close my eyes when I see something like this unfolding because I am part of government and this was another potential source of embarrassment if there had been deaths in the demolition,” she said.
As chair of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) that looked into the Aug. 23 hostage crisis, she said the second phase of the inquiry board’s report would be helpful in implementing institutional reforms and improvements such as in the PNP.
An official of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Friday urged the government to provide a proper relocation site for the 6,000 families.
Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of the CBCP National Secretariat for Social Action, on Friday said the relocation site for these illegal settlers must be provided at least with sufficient water and power supply.
The government must also ensure that these poor families would find adequate sources of livelihood, he said.
“These people are having a hard time leaving because... they are unsure if they will find work near the relocation site,” said Gariguez over Church-run Radio Veritas.
‘We want to stay in QC’
Residents of Sitio San Roque, whose shanties were demolished on Thursday have asked the government to relocate them within Quezon City instead of the Rizal relocation site offered by the NHA.
Members of the Maralitang Nagkaisa sa San Roque North Triangle said they will settle for nothing less after the bloody demolition on Thursday.
“We don’t like the relocation site being offered to us in Montalban. We want to stay in Quezon City,” said Lucia Velarde, the group’s president.
The group, represented by lawyer Jose Antonio Gallo, attended a hearing at the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 226 together with the NHA legal counsel to discuss the temporary restraining order which the court issued on Thursday.
Reporters outside the courtroom of Judge Ma. Luisa Padilla were told by Gallo that the issue of the petition for injunction had been submitted for resolution by the court.
Dialogue with NHA
“We welcome the pronouncement by the President on the halting of the demolition and relocation. But [since] that is the executive branch, it will not affect the outcome of any resolution from the court,” Gallo said.
He clarified that the TRO was only meant to last for one day and that the court would decide whether or not to grant a petition for injunction which would prevent the NHA from carrying out the demolition.
He added that his clients would seek a dialogue with the NHA on the issue of relocation, adding that the residents wish to stay in Quezon City.
Out of the 9,000 families staying at Sitio San Roque, 3,000 voluntarily left the area on Thursday.
The residents reportedly asked for an extension of the TRO for 30 days, while the NHA sought for a 15-day extension.
Gallo also called on Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista to help the residents.
A fire of still unknown origin broke out yesterday afternoon in one of the houses on Agham Road in Quezon City, site of the halted demolition by the NHA on Thursday.
There is no information if the fire was related to the demolition or not, said Supt. Pablo Cordeta.
Arson investigator SFO2 Fortunato Alde said the fire started at around 1:30 p.m. and lasted for less than an hour.
“The alarm was immediately raised to level five because the houses were made of light materials and were close to each other,” Alde said in a mix of English and Filipino.
The arson investigator said the fire destroyed two houses.
Chrstian Esguerra, Nikko Dizon & Julie Aurelio, Phil. Daily Inquirer