The impunity in recent political killings in the Philippines could have emboldened the Ampatuan clan to commit the massacre. If the perpetrators of more than a thousand extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of political activists could walk scot-free, perhaps, they thought, they could get away with killing less than a hundred people.
By BENJIE OLIVEROS
MANILA — The Ampatuan massacre last November 23 shocked the nation and the world. It was shocking not only because of its ferocity, claiming the lives of 57 innocent people including passers by, and barbarity, which included the rape of women, desecration of bodies and beheading of some victims, but also because of the brazenness in the commission of such abhorrent atrocities. Even lawyers and journalists, who were there to witness the filing of certificate of candidacy of vice mayor Datu Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu of Buluan town supposedly to prevent any untoward incident from happening to Mangudadatu’s relatives and supporters, were brutally killed.
Violence is regular fare in local politics. Political dynasties are maintained by guns, goons, and gold. This is not surprising as the heads of powerful clans are big landlords who maintain private armies to keep their peasants in check, to grab lands from small landowners, and to use against their political rivals during elections. Abra Representative Luis “Chito” Bersamin Jr. was killed in broad daylight in front of the Mount Carmel Church in Quezon City in December 2006, five months before the May 2007 elections. Former Abra governor Vicente Isidro Valera, political rival of the Bersamins, is the main suspect in the killing.
The country’s local politics is filled with stories of violence involving warring clans and political camps. For as long as big landowners with their private armies lord it over the provinces, employing their private armies and using the police to protect their interests, violence in local politics would not cease.
However, the Ampatuan massacre stands out because of the sheer number of victims and the brutality by which they were killed. The victims were not armed nor do they all belong to the Mangudadatu clan, Ampatuan’s political rival. Innocent civilians such as lawyers, journalists, and passers by were abducted and brutally killed. In fact, they comprise the majority of the victims.
Very few cases of violence in local politics could compare to the Ampatuan massacre in terms of ferocity, brutality, and brazenness. Perhaps only the Oro Este massacre in Ilocos in 1970 could parallel it. In the Oro Este massacre, the private army of the Crisologo clan led by Bingbong Crisologo burned a whole village for being supporters of the Singson clan. However, it still pales in comparison to the barbarity of the Ampatuan massacre.
By all indications, the Ampatuan massacre was well-planned. The killers had a backhoe and pits for graves ready. They have reportedly been waiting for Mangudadatu to file his certificate of candidacy for governor for two days. And it was not as if the police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were caught unprepared. A journalist who luckily escaped being killed because he and his companions had to do some errands and were not able to leave with the seven-vehicle convoy reported that the police and AFP were informed of the threat to the lives of the people who joined the convoy. But still nothing was done to prevent the incident. Worse, some police officials in the province are being implicated in the massacre.
How could the killers be so brazen?
The suspected perpetrator, Datu Unsay mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., his brother Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor Zaldy Ampatuan and his father Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. are all allies of the Arroyo administration. The main suspect, Andal Jr., even attended the recent Lakas-CMD convention where Gilbert Teodoro was declared as the administration’s bet for president.
It is this closeness to the Arroyo government that emboldened the Ampatuan clan. It would be recalled that in the “Hello Garci” tapes, a woman believed to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was caught talking with a person from the Commission on Elections widely believed to be Virgilio Garcillano asking the latter to ensure that she wins by one million votes against the late Fernando Poe Jr.. Arroyo’s votes were allegedly padded at the ARMM and Cebu. The whole senatorial slate of the administration won in Maguindanao and Poe, Arroyo’s rival, supposedly did not get a single vote in at least three towns.
Added to this, since the legitimacy of the Arroyo government came under question in 2005, Arroyo has been relying on her allies in Congress and local government to keep herself in power. She has been coddling, bribing and protecting its political allies ever since.
The impunity in recent political killings in the Philippines could also have emboldened the Ampatuan clan to commit the massacre. If the perpetrators of more than a thousand extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of political activists could walk scot-free, perhaps, they thought, they could get away with killing less than a hundred people.
Justice should be served to the victims of these abhorrent acts but the Arroyo government has been reluctant in applying the full force of the law on the Ampatuan clan, especially Andal Jr. It took three days before the AFP and the police moved in to arrest the suspects and contain the Ampatuan clan. The Filipino people should, therefore, be persistent and vigilant in pushing for justice for the victims. Otherwise, once the massacre is no longer in the headlines, the case would likewise gather dust.
However, for as long as big landowners lord it over the provinces, warlord politics and its concomitant violence would persist. What the Maguindanao massacre just did was to raise the level of violence and barbarity in Philippine politics.