Govt faces tough questions over alliance with warlord

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 07 2009 05:24 PM | Updated as of Dec 08 2009 01:24 AM

SHARIFF AGUAK - The Philippine government has branded a former ally in the troubled south of the country an enemy of the state, raising questions as to why it backed the warlord for nearly a decade.

President Gloria Arroyo's government turned against Andal Ampatuan Sr., the governor of Maguindanao province since 2001, after his son was accused of leading a massacre of 57 civilians last month.

Following the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao on Friday, the government branded Ampatuan Sr. a rebel, alleging he commanded a private army of thousands of gunmen with vast amounts of weaponry that had gone rogue.

Nevertheless, the government insists it was right to support him as part of a strategy to contain more dangerous Muslim guerrillas who have been waging a separatist insurgency in the southern third of the country since the 1970s.

"When you talk about warlords in those areas, it's very difficult to distinguish between a local official who is exercising his duties... in a manner that respects the law and the constitution, as against somebody who doesn't," Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno told reporters in Manila on Monday.

"Now, when they don't, they become rebels. When they do, they become agents of the government and constructive forces in our national government."

Puno and other officials said the Ampatuan clan was allowed to build up forces as part of a government strategy to contain the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose separatist insurgency on Maguindanao and other parts of Mindanao island has left over 150,000 people dead since the 1970s.

"The problem was they went beyond government control. The family controlled them and they were used for evil deeds," Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said of the Ampatuans' government-approved militias.

Highlighting the pitfalls with such a Faustian pact, soldiers on Sunday uncovered high-powered rifles and other weapons on a sprawling orchard owned by Ampatuan Sr., who was arrested within hours of martial law being declared.

The orchard used to be part of Camp Omar, a training base for the MILF, the militant organization which has been fighting for an independent Muslim Mindanao since 1978.

Soldiers at the scene expressed disgust over the irony that their new enemy had used the camp, because Special Forces died there in battles to take the property from the MILF in 2000.

"Many of our Rangers gave their lives before the government seized control of this place," said one Philippine Army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The officer, angry at what he believed was an insult to soldiery, denounced the government's decision to turn over the land to Ampatuan Sr. in the first place.

At the orchard, which lies on the outskirts of the provincial capital Shariff Aguak, the MILF trenches and fortifications of old are long gone.

In their place are rows of mango trees as well as newly planted coconut saplings in neat rows stretching into the nearby foothills and fenced off with concertina wire.

The government has faced strong criticism from many quarters, including the nation's human rights commissioner, for aligning itself with the Ampatuans.

But Interior Secretary Puno said the history of Mindanao island, where Muslim rebels have waged battles for independence from Manila-based Christian governments for centuries, needed to be understood.

"In some areas of Mindanao the culture and history and background of the people are not really exactly the same as ours. In some areas of the country the democratic institutions... have not always been really present," he said.

Puno said this was why large parts of Mindanao, including all of Maguindanao, have been run autonomously since the 1990s, and why clans such as the Ampatuans had been brought into the national political system.

"The establishment of the Muslim autonomous region recognized the fact and respects the fact that they have their own traditions, their own history, their own justice systems," Puno said.

"So it is in that context that these political groupings have become part (of the national government)."