MANILA - The massacre of Maguindanao that happened on Nov. 23 is traditional politics at its madness. It bared an umbilical cord that binds two powerful dynasties – the Arroyos of Malacanang and the Ampatuans, warlords of Maguindanao and the ARMM. Their ties have been nurtured by political patronage that, at its worst form, breeds a politics of violence.
The Ampatuans had a phenomenal rise to power beginning in 2001, the year when Gloria M. Arroyo became president – an offshoot of the second people’s uprising that January. The patriarch, Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr. was a House representative and later became governor of Maguindanao province. Endorsed by Arroyo, a son, Zaldy, was elected governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), while another son, Andal, Jr., became mayor of Datu Unsay. Andal, Jr. has been arrested and detained by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) as the suspected mastermind of the massacre that, to date, has left 57 people dead.
In all, the Ampatuan dynasty has 18 local and House officials: 2 congressmen (including Rep. Simeon Datumanong), two governors, one vice governor, three provincial board members, eight mayors, and two vice mayors. They control many of Maguindanao’s 27 towns. A cousin, Zamzamin Ampatuan, has held several Cabinet positions the latest as energy undersecretary.
Mrs. Arroyo’s ties to the Ampatuans are defined by electoral votes. Maguindanao – for that matter, ARMM – gave the critical votes to her in the 2004 presidential election. Some 194,000 votes from the province were supposed to have been cast for Arroyo as against her closest rival’s (movie star Fernando Poe, Jr.) 60,000. In all, she garnered 555,000 from the ARMM compared to Poe’s 273,000. In 2007, Maguindanao gave a 12-0 sweep for the administration’s Team Unity (TU) even if its slate suffered major setbacks in the whole country.
The votes in both elections were, however, tainted by allegations of widespread fraud, fake election returns (ERs), pre-filled ballots, vote buying, and intimidation. It was because of these, together with other reports of election rigging in Cebu and other provinces that until today Arroyo is seen by many Filipinos as a fake president.
For delivering the critical votes, the Ampatuans’ private army was tolerated. Acting more than just typical warlords, they have at the latest count about 850 armed members. Many of these are actually members of the paramilitary Citizens’ Armed Force Geographical Units Cafgu) and Civilian Volunteers Organizations (CVOs). In 2006 at the height of calls for her resignation, Arroyo issued EO 546 arming part of the CVOs and placing them under the local government units (LGUs). The Cafgu and CVO gave a legal cover to the Ampatuan dynasty’s private army. It turns out, however, that even the Philippine Army’s 64th IB and police units were at the beck and call of the Ampatuans, with APCs and tanks made available for their own private security. In the Nov. 23 massacre, the firearms and ammunition used were reportedly supplied by the military while some policemen were seen among the perpetrators of the crime.
This whole war machinery came under the Ampatuans’ use on the pretext of fighting the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and for counter-insurgency under Arroyo’s controversial Oplan Bantay Laya. But like many LGUs, this quasi-police authority served another purpose and for an entirely different agenda - something that was not entirely unknown to Arroyo officials and had been pretty much tolerated.
Especially in the rural provinces, this compact between the strong-arm president and political warlords results in the militarization of the civilian bureaucracy and breeds despotism that undermines civilian authority. It transforms the local government system into purely electoral machinery for the mutual support and benefit among the powers-that-be. It also converts many LGUs into instruments of counter-insurgency instead of being made to address the generational problems of poverty and social inequality.
Second poorest province
All these explain why Maguindanao remains the country’s second poorest province and the ARMM the poorest region. Wherever there are powerful dynasties and warlords one can be sure these co-exist – nay, these perpetuate - deeply-entrenched poverty and social injustice. Multi-million mansions and caches of firearms are an aberration in a land of poverty and oppression.
The Ampatuans are, of course, just one of the 300 or so political clans in the country that lord over Malacanang, Congress, and the local governments for as long as one can remember. Warlordism still thrives in many provinces.
Meantime, this quid-pro-quo politics promotes the culture of impunity under which the granting of favors to key LGUs, that includes tolerating private armies, is taken as a license for a reign of terror that hardens the monopoly of local power and makes warlords unaccountable to no one.
All these will explain why the Maguindanao massacre took place. Vultures suck each other’s blood and civilians become just a collateral damage.
But it is not only the incorrigible local dynasties and the president who should answer for mayhems such as the Maguindanao massacre. Congress, at least its majority members, is equally accountable for tolerating the abuse of presidential power and for the arming of family dynasties. Both the AFP and Philippine National Police should be reminded that they serve not the president or local chieftains but the country.
If there’s any immediate lesson that can be drawn from the massacre, it is not simply about failure of governance. It is the realization that the country’s problems are far more complex and run deeply than they appear to be. It tells us that one must begin to resist the politics of violence in order for the rays of hope to overpower darkness