OPINION: Ampatuan massacre and urgent reforms

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Dec 19 2019 07:13 PM

I was asked in an interview, and rightly so, would the Ampatuan Massacre have generated so much public concern if it were not as colossal and abominable as it is the most nefarious political crime in recent Philippine history? I replied “No”, with a feeling of disenchantment. Weeks before that, in anticipation of the historic verdict, I was asked if the massacre was something “unexpected”, and I replied saying it was, but only because of its scale and unparalleled impunity.

What I mean is that killings have long been part of politics in this country, especially as elections get near and almost always in the same places where there is so much poverty or if they involve the political personalities from these places. Unfortunately, in most of the political crimes we had before, we seemed to have always simply shrugged our shoulders, as if we had tacitly accepted that anyone getting killed because of politics, regardless whether it's a politician, a supporter or just any ordinary individual, is expected as it is just part of politics.

The Ampatuan massacre is the height of warlordism in Philippine politics, that rightly so, it is a wake-up call. The question is how long will it be in our minds and hearts and/or whether it will actually wake us up and lead to needed reforms. This we have to ask ourselves as we are asked how to move forward. There is so much to be had if this much-awaited decision is to be a barometer of justice in the country. It was a partial victory of sorts, almost just a pyrrhic victory. So we’d like to really think hard and fast on how to move forward and what to do with the kind of politics and justice in this country.

10 years. That's how long we had to wait for this decision. Of course, there are so many reasons why it had to be that long, especially considering the number of the accused and therefore the volume of testimonies, pieces of evidence, and so on. It's a humongous case as they say, hence, the long wait. Considering the kind of system we have in place, this is expected, but does it mean there’s no way it can be improved and that (without wishing there’ll be another of this wicked crime) there won’t be another long wait in the future? In the first place, is a long wait not the standard in our kind of justice?

I can almost hear some shouting, calling for the revival of the death penalty. The argument is that it will deter crime. I am inclined to agree, but only in a system where everyone really has a good chance at getting justice that is deserved. But not under the current system, where anyone who has the resources, especially tremendous resources as the Ampatuans, can always get away. I may be wrong, but it is precisely because of the power and influence of the political clan that contributed to the long wait. Imagine if the public did not take so much interest in it, what are the chances of it resulting differently? What if the victims were ordinary folks and there was no one from the media who died?

Before we act hastily and advocate returning to death penalty, we’d surely like to ask first why in all criminal cases, we are dependent on “witnesses”? There has to be a review of many of these cases, or at least the most celebrated ones of our time. What happened to the Vizconde massacre, Chiong sisters’ kidnap, rape and murder case, and the disappearance of Rose Barrameda among others? There's so much that we’d like to ask in each of these cases, but what seems to be common in all of these is that so much depended on witnesses that if they recanted or suddenly disappeared, almost always, the cases are dismissed.

How equipped is the Philippine National Police (PNP) in forensic investigation? How many forensic laboratories do we have across the country? How many criminal investigators do we have? How many of them have had sophisticated training? Many of what we see on television, Netflix or movies may be fictional, that a criminal is identified and arrested as a result of meticulous investigation and gathering and presentation of “hard evidence”. How many of the convictions of some of the celebrated cases were reached because of hard evidence? And so we have to ask how believable are these shows and close to reality in other countries and how awesome as it is close to impossible here in the Philippines.

You might even be surprised, even aghast if you are told that for a start, we might even be asking the wrong question. We should want to go around the country and find out how many uniformed personnel there are and if we have enough to, at the very least, maintain law and order in the countryside. Especially if we consider island municipalities or barangays that are hours away from the mainland, you will be astonished to know that we can count with our fingers, perhaps even just with one hand, the number of regular uniformed personnel in some municipalities. How much more if we ask if we have criminal investigators and forensic laboratories, enough to cover the whole country?

That’s law enforcement in the Philippines. We haven’t even asked what’s wrong with the prosecution part of the justice system. Perhaps we can start asking what happened to the recent dismissal of the Sandiganbayan of the Marcos whopping 200-billion peso civil case. How do we make sense of presenting mere “photocopies” as evidence? In the first place, how will there be photocopies if there are no original or source documents? How many actually really “lawyered” for the Marcoses? Of course, absent a thorough look at this case, mine will just be among the many speculations. And there are more of these similar cases, including the recently decided Napoles-related cases.

It is a lot more disappointing that for the longest time, we have known that so much of these social and political problems are borne out of our political and governance system, that there are concrete proposals already carefully studied and formulated for adoption and yet are simply ignored by our policy-makers. In the first place, we have to ask how political crimes like this Ampatuan massacre is directly related to clientelistic politics that we have always had since the beginning?

If you want to be specific, you’d like to ask how many towns in Maguindanao are named after members of the Ampatuan clan. Of course, some would say that’s normal as it is the same in some towns, and not only in this country. I’m not sure though if any of these are named after a still-living politician. Usually, a town is named in memory of a celebrated former leader of a town.

These are fundamental questions, as you would like to ask why many political leaders and families consider being in government, especially elected positions as an entitlement. It seems, and this is very well illustrated by my earlier question, why many towns in Maguindanao, including one named after a still-living politician, are named after the Ampatuan clan members. Do they think they actually own these towns?

I remain hopeful. We should remain hopeful, and we should really and vigorously urge our leaders to take heed of much-needed and doable reforms. We can no longer just be bystanders and just take things as they currently are. We don’t have to continually have leaders of this kind who are not only incompetent but also utterly high-handed and self-entitled. We have every reason and the wherewithal to have our leaders act accordingly and seriously push for reforms. After all, we only have one country.

We can, of course, always just resort to social media, call each other names or label with different colors. In the end, we will all always be fighting for nothing and remain the real losers in the process as we miserably fail to finally have the kind of government and the kind of justice we deserve.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.