TARLAC, Philippines

Life is not sweet for workers at a sugar estate owned by the family of Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III, a visiting church group has found.

“I have been watching closely developments in the Philippines since the late dictator (Ferdinand) Marcos was ousted in 1986 but it looks like much remains to be desired in this so-called democratic country,” Tony Waworuntu, a former staff member of the Christian Conference of Asia, told ENInews.

Waworuntu, an Indonesian, was reflecting on a World Council of Churches’ visiting team’s Dec. 3 visit to Hacienda Luisita, a 6,000-hectare sugar estate owned by the maternal family of President Aquino in Tarlac province north of Manila.

During the visit of the team called “Living Letters,” Waworuntu and colleagues heard testimonies from laborers, who described their “long struggle” as “bitter and painful” as well as “paved with blood.”

Farm worker and union leader Lito Bais told the visiting team about a spate of killings following the massacre of seven protesting farmers on Nov. 16, 2004. The farmers had demanded that the sugar estate be divided among the more than 5,000 workers.

Bais believed that the killings of Bishop Alberto Ramento on Oct. 3, 2006 and the Rev. William Tadena on March 13, 2005 were related to their support for the workers’ causes. Ramento and Tadena belonged to the home grown Philippines Independent Church.

“We always thank various church leaders who continue to give us spiritual and material support,” said Bais. He said that they hoped to communicate “the story of our struggle for land and justice” through the visit by the church group.

The Living Letters group, in a statement read on Dec. 4 during a press conference in Manila, called for “the immediate implementation of the decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council to distribute the land to the farmer-workers.”

The council on Dec. 23, 2005 had ordered Hacienda Luisita’s sugar plantation to be allotted to the workers through the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, adopted under the late President Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother.

But the order has never been implemented because the Cojuangcos, President Aquino’s maternal clan, have contested the order in court.

The visiting church group also demanded the “unconditional release” of 43 health workers, many of them from church organizations, who were arrested in February while conducting community health training in Morong town in Rizal province. They have been detained since on suspicion of being rebels but insist on their innocence.