Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bitter Roads of Mindanao

Recalling the promise and the terror unearthed by the Maguindanao massacre
The road to the town of Sharif Aguak in Maguindanao province has the wistful air of a barren savannah, with tiny pastel mosques dotted along the way. But as you pass the high walls of mansions owned by powerful politicians, fear sets in.

Before the unprecedented spasm of violence that took place here about a week ago, in which 57 people were slain including 30 journalists, I frequently took this road like any ordinary traveler. I would try to imagine the historical panorama of the past, when Maguindanao was the heart of Mindanao, the empire of legendary sultans and datus, or local Muslim chieftains.

It is now one of the poorest provinces in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao, presided over by a political clan drawing its strength from the entrenched tradition of the datu system, like the lords of a fiefdom, a living symbol of the culture of feudal patronage that is so deeply embedded in the Philippine political landscape.

In Maguindanao, you could always tell who was the king of the land and had the favor of the president. The political clan, the Ampatuans, who have been accused of being behind last week's shocking massacre, did not hide it. Their ostentatious mansions and private armies were an eyesore in a rugged, undeveloped terrain, the poverty the result of war, conflict and kidnapping over the last 40 years of complex secessionist fighting.

The people, both Muslim and Christian, feared the elder, Andal Ampatuan, the head of the family and the governor of Maguindanao. His son, the scion Andal Ampatuan Jr., turned himself in to face murder charges after the massacre. He will undoubtedly be convicted, there is too much publicity and too much at stake to allow this incident to go unpunished as have so many less well known killings across the vast island. But jail for the wealthy in the Philippines too often means "jail" at home, in comfort, and with eventual appearances in nightclubs in Manila.

The fear locked into this terrain stems from an image one has of a warlord, a caricature of a mafioso armed to the teeth, flaunting wealth in the face of the abject poverty of his constituents and of the bare survival of the many refugees caught in the endless battles between the army and separatist rebels. The Ampatuan family controls the province, the larger Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, and local political seats in towns surrounding the famous Liguasan Marsh that has remained a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for decades.

It is even said that the appointment of a military commander in the area must have the approval of the family, or at least that the commander must stay on the good side of the clan. In fact, to get an appointment with the governor, a commander has to go through a conduit; these audiences with power don't last very long: a few selected words, a nod or a handshake.

The power that Muslim politicians have cultivated and preserved to their advantage is part of the complex quilt of Mindanao. In the early stages of the rebellion for Muslim independence in the 1970s, the central government in Manila applied the classic strategy of divide and rule to break the back of the Muslim insurrection.
The movement was initially a tentative alliance between the traditional leaders, those of once-royal blood, and the fresh breed of socialist activists who dreamed up a hard-core ideology for their vision of an Islamic republic. The government broke the tentative alliance apart by appealing to the self-interest of the datu families.
This brought about the era of warlordism, Philippine-style, especially in the 1980s.

The ravaged path of democracy was undermined by a feudalistic culture made more dangerous by the fights among families sucked into the unending cycle of revenge, known as rido, or clan warfare — as though killing each other off for vengeance was a sort of deadly theater. A weapon became part of local life, used for power, protection, self-preservation; without it, one didn't exist.

On November 23, the cauldron boiled over when the Ampatuan militia descended on a political campaign caravan headed by Cenalyn Tiamzon-Mangudadatu, the wife of Toto Mangudadatu, Ampatuan's rival, and destroyed it in an orgy of killing and rape and torture. Besides the Ampatuan scion, another 20 of the clan's army also have been arrested for an attack that struck deeply at the heart not just of Maguindanao but any democratic forces raising their heads in the Philippines.

So while the nation stood numb and appalled by the senseless killings of people merely for accompanying a rival of the Ampatuans to file a candidacy for next year's elections – a new round of voting that could alter local power – there may be nothing to understand except the symbol of a weapon.

The answer is there. It may follow that the government calls for a massive disarming of "loose firearms," to use a popular Philippine term, but that might bring back past mistakes: never take a weapon away from a Muslim in Mindanao, as the saying goes.

The datus of the old sultanate had the respect of the people to settle ridos and other conflicts; these days the Muslim people seem to have lost their anchor. They have lost their land to begin with, to Christian settlers from the north over many decades, and the fighting that over four decades bred more violence, anger, fear, misplaced pride, poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness.

Some in the Philippine Army do not favor disarmament. There is a belief that the bad guys will always know how to keep or hide their weapons and the good guys will lose theirs.

Surreptitiously, government soldiers train the so-called civilian defense forces to protect a beleaguered municipality or to maintain a semblance of peace in a given area. They supposedly offset dozens of armed groups who may be bandits, mercenaries, or Islamist rebels — or maybe all three. While these "civilian" armies may be dangerous in the long run, they are seen as a temporary solution to a permanent problem that only the government can resolve with a vision of steadfast determination. It has been this way since the 1970s, growing worse and more complex over time.

Mindanao came close to winning peace last year, but the government lost the ball in the final stage of the negotiations when both sides, the government and the MILF, were to sign a deal on ancestral rights for the Muslims. Things went bad from there, despite efforts to regain morsels of peace, step-by-step, by non-government organizations, humanitarian groups, and even army commanders tired of the fighting.
The blood that claimed 57 innocent lives has obliterated what people were always hoping for on this rich island of a land of thwarted promise.

The road to Sharif Aguak was always pleasant, in spite of the fears people had about the Ampatuans. Those long drives on practically empty roads — like the one where 57 people died — are recorded in my memory, a sad parcel of Mindanao's history.
Asia Sentinel by Criselda Yabes

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