Remembering the Escalante Massacre: 38 Years Later

As we near September 21st and prepare to mark the 51st anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines, we must also remember the victims of the Escalante massacre. Understanding the events leading up to September of 1985 is essential in comprehending the significance of the mobilization and tie it to exploitative practices that still exist today. CPSO condemns both the historical and ongoing human rights violations enacted by the Philippine state and stands in support of the Filipino people’s fight for national democracy.

We call for you to join us on September 23rd at 5 p.m. for a vigil at Bathurst-Wilson Parkette to commemorate the 51st anniversary of martial law (details are available at the bottom of this page).

Historical context:

In the 1970s and 80s, Marcos Sr’s rule was characterized by cronyism, in which the dictator appointed his friends to positions of power for economic gain. One of these cronies, Robert Benedicto, was awarded comprehensive influence over the Philippines’ lucrative sugar industry. Benedicto abused his powers to establish exploitative economic practices, determining prices and taking over entire sugar mills. He generated massive profits, buying sugar at low prices from hacenderos who paid tillers, farm workers, and sacadas less than minimum wage, often forcing people off of their land because they couldn’t pay exorbitant debts (land-grabbing). 

As the sugar industry declined in the mid-1980s, workers were being laid off and forced into starvation by greedy landlords. Those who retained their jobs were trapped, unable to quit their livelihood without facing the threat of hunger. Children in Negros were dying from starvation, but the governor, Armando Gustilo, was focused on funnelling money into the formation of a private army to protect his property and wealth. Gustilo was a powerful sugarcane landlord and another noted crony of Marcos Sr. His army and the Filipino military terrorized people, who were fighting for their rights and denouncing the Marcos dictatorship.

In September of 1985, the people of the Philippines organized to protest the 13th year of martial law and called for the end of the Marcos dictatorship. Thousands of farmers, labour unions, churchgoers, students, doctors, lawyers, fisherfolk, urban poor, and sugar workers gathered for a three-day-long mobilization in Escalante led by BAYAN. 

On September 20th, after a couple of days of demonstration in downtown Escalante, word spread that the chair of BAYAN had been arrested in his home for refusing to call off the action. More and more armed forces began to station themselves in the town plaza near protestors, ordering them to disperse. Local police, armed civilians and other paramilitary groups encircled and attacked the protestors, killing at least 20 people and leaving 30 wounded.

All but one of the victims were in their twenties or were teenagers, the youngest being 14. They were already hacienda workers, fishermen or labourers at their age, proof of how awful conditions were in Negros. Their deaths at the hands of the military was proof of how far the authorities would go to quell dissent during Martial Law “

(Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, 2021)

According to Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (the Federation of Agricultural Workers), only three police officers were arrested after they murdered innocent civilians demonstrating for their rights. Although a fact-finding commission was established after the events of September 20th, warlords like Armando Gustilo were never called in for investigation. Some police were even assigned elsewhere and given promotions. 

Ties to today: 

Even today, under the current Marcos-Duterte regime, Negros remains under Memorandum Order No. 32 (MO32). As we approach the 5th anniversary of MO32 this November, it becomes increasingly difficult to find differences between the state-implemented terror that exists today vs. the violence of the martial law era. MO32 allows state forces to operate under de facto martial law, prioritizing profits for landlords and corrupt politicians, condemning millions of Filipino sugar workers to a state of landlessness, poverty, and hunger. 

The economy of the Philippines remains semi-feudal to support Western imperialism and its desire for ever-cheaper raw materials. The violent legacy of martial law that was implemented to crush dissent for the financial benefit of bureaucrat capitalists lives on through the current Marcos-Duterte presidency. Today, extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate bombings, and invasive surveillance of people fighting for their rights continue.

CPSO stands in solidarity with the Filipino people who continue to struggle for national democracy under a government that seeks to exploit and murder its people.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *