Minus Ampatuans, Maguindanao celebrates ‘peaceful’ polls (2)

Mindanews and VERA Files
(Last of two parts)

SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao—In the province where the worst pre-election violence in Philippine history happened on Nov. 23, there was reason to celebrate when the worst-case scenarios on election day did not happen.

Soldiers and policemen were already tearing down the posters of candidates and other election paraphernalia a day after the elections. At the provincial capitol grounds, soldiers sought refuge from the searing heat under trees like it were an ordinary day.

Two days after the elections, the 6th Infantry Division hosted a breakfast meeting at Camp Siongco in Datu Odin Sinsuat town to celebrate the success of the country’s first automated elections, particularly Maguindanao’s “generally peaceful” polls.

In the past, no celebration, cleaning up of election paraphernalia or relaxing under the shade of trees was possible in the first week after election day because soldiers would still be busy patrolling the areas or securing venues of electoral canvassing.

To be sure, a number of violent incidents were recorded on the day of the election in Maguindanao: There was mortar firing and a firefight at 1:15 a.m. in Ampatuan town. Two grenade launchers exploded at 10 a.m. in Datu Piang. A grenade was lobbed but did not explode in Paglat poblacion. The Army fired two rounds of 81mm mortar toward 100 “armed lawless group” in Datu Salibo, temporarily stopping the voting. A firefight broke out between armed supporters of vice mayoralty candidates Bhernie Amolintao Bagundang and Muslimin Guiama Baliwang at the voting precinct in Barangay Kapinpilan, North Kabuntalan, Maguindanao.

Two civilians were reported killed, one of them a certain Lano, former chair of Barangay Kapimpilan, North Kabuntalan and a supporter of mayoralty candidate Abutazil Zainudin.

Still, Brig. Gen. Ariel Bernardo, assistant chief of the 6th Infantry Division and head of Task Force HOPE (Honest, Orderly, Peaceful Elections), said voting in Maguindanao was “generally peaceful with isolated and confined violent incidents at a few expected traditional contested areas.”

The worst-case scenarios did not happen even as a month before the elections, the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom) had identified several threat groups: the “Southern Philippines Secessionist Group,” or what is more commonly known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; “armed terrorist groups”; “local/foreign terrorist organizations”; and “partisan armed groups,” commonly referred to as private armies.

“Maguindanao remains to be a volatile area due to the presence of MILF forces and the partisan armed groups,” the EastMinCom said in a slide presentation before an election monitoring group in Davao City on April 14.

According to the presentation, of five areas with 51 “partisan armed groups,” 42 were in Maguindanao with about 3,330 armed followers.

A list sent by the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations to the EastMinCom chief last Dec. 11 showed an inventory of 1,891 members of the civilian volunteer organizations or CVOs. Another report from the same office, dated Dec. 6, listed 346 members of the Special Civilian Armed Auxiliary (SCAA) units in four SCAA companies.

According to Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, EastMinCom spokesperson, the SCAA companies have been disarmed and disbanded but not the 1,891 CVOs.

Cabangbang said the CVOs are in the areas which are in frequent skirmish with the MILF. But they are now under the supervision of the military instead of the police, he said.

Only the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) are supposedly armed, not CVOs. But Executive Order 546 issued by President Gloria Arroyo apparently to appease Ampatuan in July 2006, allowed the arming of CVOs.

Only 735 firearms were seized in Maguindanao from Nov. 24 to Dec. 12, of which 697 were high-powered. Cabangbang said there are only 160 armed men who have remained unaccounted for in Maguindanao since the massacre. All of them were implicated in the massacre, he said.

Fr. Eliseo Mercado Jr., executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance and former president of the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, acknowledged that all eyes were on Maguindanao in this year’s elections “because of the (Ampatuan) massacre and the notoriety of Maguindanao (during elections)” where “you don’t know when to proclaim your candidates.”

The province is notorious for delivering “command votes” during elections. Under the Arroyo administration, it gave a 12-0 victory to the administration’s senatorial candidates in the 2007 midterm elections and figured in the 2004 “Hello Garci” controversy involving elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and Arroyo.

It was in Maguindanao where Garcillano resurfaced in November 2005, after months of hiding since the controversy was exposed.

In the runup to the polls, Mercado said the main fear of national parties was what was being “cooked” in Maguindanao and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. But computerization of elections helped solve the problem.

He said: “For the first time, 85 percent of local election winners (were) known within 24 hours. Within 24 hours, nationally, we (had) a president. The vice presidency (was) still a tossup between (Jejomar) Binay and (Manuel) Mar Roxas but within 48 hours, we (knew) already the winning 10 senatorial candidates. This has never been done in the whole history of Philippine elections.

Bernardo of the 6th Infantry Division and head of Task Force HOPE attributed the “generally peaceful” elections to the cooperation of various sectors, including candidates and civil society poll watchers, and the agreement the government peace panel’s ceasefire committee and the MILF signed on April 23.

The “Guidelines for Mutual Understanding between the Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for Ceasefire-Related functions for the May 10, 2010 National Elections” were implemented from May 3 to 13.

Section 10, for example, provides that the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces-MILF elements “should not go near polling centers and avoid displaying firearms along routes leading to the areas where electoral activities are ongoing.”

Bernardo, a former member of the government’s CCCH, said the MILF had adhered to the April 23 guidelines “largely and extensively.”

On election day, the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Post composed of representatives from the government, MILF and International Monitoring Team was deployed to serve as the advance monitoring and response group in Barangay Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan.

Civil society’s active participation in monitoring the elections through the Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms Inc. (Citizens Care), Parish Pastoral Center for Responsible Voting, the presence of foreign election observers, also contributed to the “generally peaceful” voting.

But the absence of the Ampatuan patriarch and politician sons in this year’s election, the first time in nine years, has also been identified as a contributing factor to the “generally peaceful” election. They are detained in Bicutan and being tried for multiple murder charges for the massacre.

The Ampatuans left behind were mostly women as some of the male Ampatuan leaders remain at large.

The Ampatuans had earlier taken efforts to prevent the transfer of the patriarch in Davao City or if that were not possible, to have ARMM Gov. Datu Zaldy Ampatuan and brother-in-law Akmad “Tato” Ampatuan walk out of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group detention facility in General Santos City as free men in early April.

Acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra had tried to drop Zaldy and Tato from the charge sheet, but mass protests aborted the attempt.

On election day, a tarpaulin on display at the roundball in Shariff Aguak intended for Zaldy and Tato bore the message, “Welcome Home.” But neither Zaldy nor Tato ever got to see it.

(MindaNews is the news service arm of a cooperative of Mindanao-based journalists. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for “true.”)