By E. San Juan, Jr.,
Philippines Cultural Studies Center
After the feasting, the bloodletting. Only a few months has passed since de facto president of the Philippines Gloria Arroyo was publicly criticized for wanton spending of thousands of dollars in her dinners in New York City and Washington DC when another political “scandal” explodes, this time a political mass slaughter of defenseless Filipino civilians.
At least 57 victims of a hideous massacre last Nov. 23 were dug from shallow graves. Reporter Carlos H. Conde (New York Times 27 Nov 2009) reported that among the slain were 22 women, 30 journalists, 2 lawyers, and dozens of supporters of Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician who is challenging the quasi-feudal control of Maguindanao province by the Amapatuan clan. Early forensic analysis indicates that the women were molested or raped, their private parts mutilated, with vehicles and other accessory evidence buried in pits dug by government backhoes (Agence France-Press, “Mayor Charged with Horrific Massacre,” The Nation, 28 Nov 2009, 6A).
Everything now appears to have been premeditated. On that fateful day, with national elections looming, Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician, dispatched a convoy to the provincial capital Shariff Aguak to file papers to challenge Andal Ampatuan Jr. for the governorship now occupied by Ampatuan Senior. This sizeable convoy included his wife Genalyn, two of his sisters, lawyers and media workers, and their associates. They were stopped in broad daylight in a major highway by police officers and militiamen loyal to the Ampatuans, dragged from their cars and summarily executed, as Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor (Nov. 23) reports. About 15 motorists passing by were also killed, all buried in mass graves dug before the assault.
Who done it?—as the cliché puts it. Three journalists who survived the massacre as well as police officials and civilians directly involved have pointed to the entire Ampatuan clan as the responsible party. Not just one son. This clan rose to power by affiliating with the ruling class of landlords, compradors and bureaucrat-capitalists dominating this U.S. neocolony. Allied with the bloody Marcos dictatorship and active in the anti-communist campaigns of the Aquino, Ramos and Estrada administrations, Ampatuan Senior worked as a paramilitary leader with the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division. In the 1990s he hunted down local militants, both linked with the communist New People’s Army (NPA) as well as with two Muslim insurgent groups: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
With his close ties to the military, Andal Senior served in the Philippine Congress and later as governor of Maguindanao province in 2001 “handpicked” by the military—a “military-sponsored warlord” (Murphy’s term). He delivered millions of votes to Arroyo in the 2004 elections, giving her a large margin over popular movie star Fernando Poe Jr. Arroyo admitted this in the infamous “Hello Garci” congressional investigations. In return the Ampatuans received money, guns, and all the apparatus of coercive and consensual rule.
In 2005 Ampatuan’s son Zaldy became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARRM), a political rubric created ostensibly to give the local population more say over their own affairs and thus neutralize the political appeals of the MILF and the NPA. The Ampatuans guaranteed the elections of Arroyo’s candidates in the 2007 election. After that election, local school administrator Musa Dimasidsing exposed ballot stuffing, for which he was shot in the head. In an area where police and military, and all local officials, serve the Ampatuan clan, no wonder Dimasidsing’s murder hitherto remains unsolved. Alfredo Cayton, the commanding general of the 6th Infantry Division covering the area of the massacre, even assured the Manila paper The Manila Bulletin that it’s safe for the fate convoy to travel (Asian Human Rights Commission Urgent Appeal Case 165, 30 Nov 2009).
How to explain (especially to State Secretary Hillary Clinton, visiting the islands soon) this Ampatuan fiefdom, a relic of the U.S.’s model “showcase of democracy in Asia” during the Cold War? Just a humdrum clan feud among traditional Moro warlords?
Long before the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf came into the scene to justify the hundreds of U.S. Special Forces now operating in thinly disguised bases in the southern Philippines, political feudal fragmentation/clientelism has been perpetuated by U.S. colonial rule. The patronage system is alive and well in elite democracy. After various treaties ending Moro resistance in 1913, the U.S. allowed local chieftains from entrenched tributary clans to exercise its political and economic ascendancy. They worked with the predominantly Christian Manila-based ruling cliques, with the National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), to maintain the poverty and subordination of millions of Moro peasants, fishermen, workers, women, youth, including other non-Muslim tribal groups called “Lumads.” No wonder Maguindanao and the Sulu Islands remain the poorest in a country where the majority of 90 million citizens live on less than $2 a day.
To continue the exploitation and oppression of the majority, the Washington-supervised AFP lacks manpower and logistics to defeat the organized insurgents. But to squelch any political resistance, the AFP employed the U.S.-recommended strategy of paramilitary groups (the CAFGUs, or Civilian Armed Fore Geographical Units; and CVOs, or Civilian Volunteer Organizations), similar to the U.S.-sponsored paramilitary formations in Colombia, Central America, and elsewhere.
From the start, Arroyo’s electoral cheating and corrupion has been exposed, making her letimacy precarious. She needs periodic shows of violence to buttress the lack of consensual authority, more than previous presidents. In July 2006, Arroyo issued Executive Order 546. This move overturned a clause in the Philippine Constitution barring private armies such as those controlled by the Ampatuans and over a hundred political dynasties such as the Arroyos. The result: local officials like the Ampatuans and the police bureaucracies they control were given the power to create “force multipliers”
in the fight against the NPA, MILF and MNLF, namely, AFP-sponsored “wild guns” of the CAFGUs and CVOs deputized to suppress political opposition. Estimates of the Ampatuan’s local army is about 800-1000 men, aside from those managed by four Ampatuan town mayors. Local analyst Jarius Bondoc and former congressman Michael Mastura have described the impunity of Ampatuan’s fiefdom, their control of all State funds and their clearance of police and military officials assigned to their area.
The Philippine human rights monitor KARAPAAN correctly links this old U.S. counterinsurgency method of “low intensity warfare” to Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya, an inept and state-terrorist strategy to defeat the NPA and MILF. The counterinsurgency program of arming private armies such as the Ampatuans have led to extra-judicial killings of all “enemies of the state,” including those labeled front organizations. This happened with the dreaded U.S.-subsidized vigilante groups allowed by Corazon Aquino during her administration and in covert forms during the current campaign against the Abu Sayyaf.
Arroyo ends her de facto president plagued with corruption scandals and the worst human-rights record of any presidency, even including Ferdinand Marcos’. As of 2001, the Arroyo regime has to its credit 1,118 extrajudicial murders, 204 forcible disappearances, 1,026 tortured, and 1,1932 illegal arrests. These have all been documented by the UN Special Rapporteurs, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international monitors. The Arroyo regime not only has done nothing to render justice to the victims, but has even continued the policies that have laid the groundwork for these unconscionable violation of human rights. She has the gall to run for Congress next year to forestall any court case against her if thrown out of office.
Cognizant of historical precedents and institutional contexts, KARAPATAN concludes that the “Maguindanao massacre was an event waiting to happen with the continued implementation of this criminal government’s anti-insurgency program….Now the country is jolted by a brutal crime ostensibly committed by a private army of a warlord…For far too long has this regime considered itself a law above the citizens, contravening the laws laid out in the legal instruments of the land so that its coddled political allies have imbibed the mindset that they too can commit such transgressions with impunity. [The Maguindanao massacre] is the result of condoning and tolerating human rights violations.”
KARAPATAN calls on the immediate disbandment of the paramilitary units of the AFP and the gangster private armies of warlords and politicians. It calls on the abolition of the brutal Oplan Bantay Laya counter-insurgency program as a [state-terrorist] method to eradicate the festering insurgency in the land.”
Cynics will dismiss this appeal for sanity and ethical governance. Not only skeptics but commonsensical people will ask: How can the bloody Arroyo government carry out a mandate of giving justice to its citizens when Arroyo and her minions are guilty of crimes worse than the Ampatuans? As commentator Inday Espina-Varona remarked, “who will protest us from our protectors?” Witnesses have now testified that three police officers of Abusana Majid, suspended police chief of Maguindanao province, were at the scene of the killing (as reported by Cecilia Yap and Joel Guinto, 24 Nov. blog in Bloomberg.com). Arroyo adviser Jesus Dureza’s account of his highly comic ritualized “arrest” of Andal Ampatuan Jr. augurs beyond doubt of the eventual whitewashing and forcible “disappearance” of this case. Tragedy threatens to become a “Moro-moro” vaudeville, if not anticlimactic farce.
Symptoms of a failed state? Or just ordinary election-related incidents in a U.S. neocolony? Abuse of power by the Ampatuans cannot be checked by the Arroyo regime whose existence owes its illegitimacy to the electoral frauds in Maguindanao and ARRM territory of the Ampatuans. As Maria Ressa (blog in CNN Amanpour) suggests, charges against Ampatuan’s killing of political rivals have never prospered. Only a special court and international vigilance can sustain any charge against the Ampatuan clan of “crimes against humanity.” Only local mass protests can provoke world conscience and an international tribunal duly formed to investigate and render justice to the victims of this latest horrible product of finance-capital’s globalization scheme (evinced by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to destroy the planet. –##