Mindanao is no stranger to violence. Crime, insurgency and family feuds that spiral into clan wars or ‘rido,’ sapped for decades what could have been the Philippines’ ‘food basket.’ But the murder of at least 50 civilians two years ago, including women and journalists, plumbed the region into new depths of depravity.
On 24 November 2009, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was forced to declare a state of emergency in two provinces and one city in the Philippines. A day before in Maguindanao province, 58 people (one missing) were brutally killed highlighting the domination by guns, warlords and lawlessness in Philippine politics. The May 2010 national election was marred by the deadliest massacre the country has ever seen. Although past Philippine elections have often been marked by violence between private armies of provincial political warlords, this was the first time an emergency was declared in reaction to an election.
The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a known hot spot partly for election-related violence. The carnage basically placed the country back to the time when Mindanao was one big killing field. A foreign forensic expert who examined the site described it as similar to the killing zones in Rwanda during the mid-90s. Only this time, the massacre took place outside the framework of the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighting. The latter has for years fought for the establishment of a separate Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao.
More than just the election
Yet to dismiss this incident as just “election-related” misses the fundamental political and economic implications of this action. The massacre is rooted in the shift in politico-economic resources of violence and conflict in Mindanao. It signifies the emergence of a power dependent upon local revenue control which induces political office addiction.
In the past, the influence of local politicians had often been underscored by Mindanao scholars. The elite bargain was built upon the state’s willingness to grant politico-military dominance to a few Moro elites in exchange for the latter providing political thugs and armed militias to secure territories, fight the communists and separatists, and extend the state’s administrative reach.
The Philippine political system is structured around patronage and what academics call rent-seeking, or the use of privileges from the state to benefit private and family business. These families are able to control and influence the courts, Congress, and administration. In fact, the existence of political clans and dynasties has encouraged a system dominated by patronage, corruption, violence and fraud at the national and local level.
Especially among the women and youth, there have been positive signs that people seek a different future. But achieving their aspirations depends on their ability to rise above clan structures and the dynamics of hierarchy and collective self-defense that bound its members. This dilemma was painfully exposed in the Maguindanao massacre, where women who usually played a strategic role in family feud negotiation became its principal victims.
Assault on Democracy
In one stroke of violence, the carnage reaped the biggest haul of deaths among journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said: “Covering the news has always been dangerous in the Philippines, but the wanton killing of so many people makes this an assault on the very fabric of the country’s democracy.” This condemnation echoed in the statement of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines which said: “This not only erases all doubts about the Philippines being the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, outside of Iraq, it could very well place the country on the map as a candidate for a failed democracy.”
Most people in Southwestern Mindanao knew about the looming violence between the two clans. Until recently, the Mangudadatus and Ampatuans were close allies and are both political supporters of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. From the start, the decision of the Mangudadatus to contest the governorship of Maguindanao never sat well with the Ampatuans, who have ruled the province since 2001. Early 2009, patriarch Pax Mangudadatu made known his clan’s intention to challenge Ampatuan’s political hold. The 2010 elections was a critical one for the Ampatuan family since it was supposed to be the third and last term for the governor. The law bars Andal Ampatuan Sr. from running for a fourth term. In short, an attempt by the government to monitor their activities, disarm their private security and demobilize their loyalists within the police and military could have prevented such bloodshed.
The answer lies in the newfound role of Muslim Mindanao to national political elites. The region is known for having a long history of electoral fraud. The difference today lies in its ability to provide the millions of votes that can overturn the results of national electoral contests and reinforced by the sort of democratic political competition in the post-Marcos era that makes local bosses more powerful and national leaders more beholden to them. It has been established that the Ampatuans had helped Ms Arroyo win the election in 2004, when she took more than 75 percent of the vote in the province. In the 2007 mid-term election, the President’s allies in Maguindanao delivered a 12-0 vote in favor of administration candidates, locking her in a political debt with the clan.
The electoral debt opened the way for the grant of executive favors that enhanced economic resources of the warlords, enabling them to obtain reciprocal loyalty from their constituencies. This enhancement of the warlords’ economic base has enabled them to maintain private armies, that were not under the control of the army and the national police and to commit crime with impunity. President Benigno Aquino III has promised to push a crackdown against private armies or the wang-wangs of the south leading to their disbandment and stop violence from escalating into vendettas.
Two years later
The brutal massacre in Maguindanao shows the total breakdown of command and control of security in parts of Mindanao where many families live in dehumanizing poverty and violent conflict. What happened demonstrated the weak and narrow reach of the central government in Mindanao. Two years after the killings – one witness dead, 93 suspects in police custody while 103 still remain free – justice for the victims still remains elusive. Within the legal system, there have been a lot of squabbles among lawyers on how to play this sensitive trial which is hampered by poor evidence gathering, the lack of competent investigators, inadequate protection for witnesses and the hesitancy of families to come forward. Therefore, Filipino citizens must collectively demand government and authorities to consider this case high priority. Right now, there is a need for an explicit statement against impunity from President Aquino and a rapid, decisive action to strengthen the weak links that embolden the perpetrators.
*Ava Patricia C. Avila is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. She is from Mindanao and is currently doing her PhD at Cranfield University.