Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Massacre in Philippine's Mindanao

A devastating new report puts much of the blame on Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's doorstep

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo bears overwhelming responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the bloody massacre of 57 men and women on November 23 by the private army of a warlord in Mindanao, according to a grim new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Manila, the report says, deliberately nurtured a ruthless warlord in exchange for votes. And, in Arroyo's close 2004 presidential reelection campaign over Fernando Poe Jr, the warlord appears to have played a major role in fraudulently engineering her victory.

The world far beyond the Philippines was shocked by the affair, in which scores of gunmen, many of them policemen working for Andal Ampatuan Sr, the boss of Maguindanao Province, stopped the convoy of a political rival and killed everybody in it including 30 journalists, apparently the biggest toll of journalists anywhere ever. The women in the convoy were sexually violated. Hundreds of Ampatuan's men have subsequently arrested and the province was temporarily declared under martial law for the first time since the strongman Ferdinand Marcos fell from power in 1986.

The International Crisis Group is an independent, nonprofit NGO dedicated to conflict resolution and prevention. Its report, released Monday, said that "Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power, including the possession of a private arsenal with mortars, rocket launchers and state-of-the-art assault rifles. They controlled the police, the judiciary, and the local election commission."

In addition, laws and regulations passed by the federal government permitting the arming and funding of private armies allowed the Ampatuans to exercise absolute authority over the state, according to the 18-page report. "(L)ack of oversight over or audits of central government allocations to local government budgets; the ease with which weapons can be imported, purchased and circulated; and a thoroughly dysfunctional legal system" allowed the Ampatuan family to flourish in one of the poorest regions of the island country, becoming a law unto themselves.

Ominously, the report noted, "It remains to be seen whether any of those arrested will actually be tried and convicted. Fear of retaliation by the Ampatuans extends even to Manila, where a judge withdrew from the case involving the only member of the family indicted for multiple murders, citing the security of his own family."
The massacre, however, was not the result of a longstanding feud, the report said. "To call it a feud is to diminish the role played by Manila in building up a political machine and allowing it to exert absolute authority over a huge swathe of central Mindanao in exchange for votes at election time and military help against insurgents.

"This was not the inevitable result of historic hatreds, but of the deliberate nurturing of a local warlord, Andal Ampatuan Sr, who was allowed to indulge his greed and ambition in exchange for political loyalty."

Before the late 1990s, the senior Ampatuan was a small-time politico "but his power grew exponentially under the Arroyo government." In large measure, that power was enhanced by the use of laws to create new townships, enabling more and more progeny to gain political office and ensuring a steady stream of funding from the central government through a mechanism known as Internal Revenue Allotment, according to the report. In 1995, the province had 18 municipalities. By 2009 it had 36, most of them led by Andal Sr's sons, nephews, in-laws and other members of his extended family. It was Andal Ampatuan Jr. who led the massacre itself. He has since turned himself in and was charged with murder .

The real catalyst for the Ampatuans' rise to serious power came after they helped Arroyo win the May 2004 election against Fernando Poe Jr. In a taped telephone conversation that became so famous that the words "Hello Garci" were widely used as a ringtone, Arroyo was heard speaking to the election commissioner, Virgilio Garcillano, over several days in late May and mid-June as the votes were being counted. The election was extremely close and Arroyo's eventual victory depended on Mindanao. Arroyo was heard seeking reassurance that everything would come out in her favor. At one stage, Garcillano is heard telling her, "Maguindanao isn't much of a problem".

Indeed. In two Maguindanao towns, Ampatuan and Datu Piang, Poe received no votes at all, and in Shariff Aguak, he got just five. Despite widespread evidence of fake precincts and padded tallies, the election commission took notice and readily certified Arroyo as the winner.

"The alliance between Arroyo and the Ampatuans only grew closer after the 2004 election, and as the latter's political influence increased, so did its military might," the report continued. The Ampatuans exploited the government's conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to build a private army of more than 2,000, mostly armed by the government but appointed and paid by the family.

By all accounts, the Ampatuans' private army mushroomed after kill Ampatuan himself because of his role as an Arroyo government ally in the fight against Moro separatists. The Ampatuan family amassed more sophisticated weapons than either the police or the military had in their inventory, including Israeli-made Galil and Tavor assault rifles and Singaporean-made Ultramax rifles. "Military commanders quietly complained that their authority in the region was being bypassed and that Andal Sr only had to pick up the phone to the president and senior officers who ran afoul of the old man would be transferred."

In 2007, Andal Sr and his family delivered again, returning a clean sweep for the administration's senatorial candidates with a turnout of 96 percent, as opposed to a 65 percent national average. During a search of the Ampatuan compound for arms after
the killings, the police and military found thousands of voter identification cards buried in different spots. The municipal election commission officer, whom the army was hoping to question about the cards, died of heatstroke in December 2009 during the pilgrimage to Mecca - a trip paid for, some said, by Andal Sr.

The massacre, the report says, "appears to have been the combination of the old man's anger, his determination to teach a lesson to anyone who dared to challenge the family's control and the existence of a heavily armed militia utterly loyal to its employers that resulted in the carnage." The target of that anger was Toto Mangudadatu, who sought to file his candidacy for Maguindanao governor in the 2010 elections. Mangudadatu apparently had some idea that Andal's son's private army was out to get him. He sought protection from the military but was told that any requests for election-related security should be directed to the police or the national election commission.

Eventually, according to the report, Mangudadatu "sent his wife and sisters to file the papers, believing that whatever they might do to the men, the Ampatuans would not harm women. Family lawyers and some 30 local journalists decided to accompany them, also as a deterrent against violence."

The rest has been widely reported. As many as 100 armed men stopped the convoy and ordered it to drive 2-1/2 km to a seclude area, where the men and women were lined up at the site and shot, beginning with the Mangudadatu women.

"Many were shot in the genital area, some in the face. The shooting must have begun around noon, because at 12 p.m., one of the journalists, Noel Decena, managed to get an SMS to his brother from the site saying, "'Pray for us, our situation is critical'." As the shooting started, some tried to escape but were shot down by the members of the private army. Most were buried with a backhoe although some were left where they lay,

"The outrage over the killings was global," the report said. "It was one of the worst acts of political violence in modern Philippines history and the largest number of journalists slain on a single day ever, anywhere in the world. The murder of the women would have been an outrage anywhere, but in Muslim Mindanao, it was also a violation of an unwritten code that women are not to be harmed by local militias.

Most if not all of the female victims' pants were found unzipped, and their sexual organs mutilated and mangled. Five of them tested positive for semen, indicative of sexual abuse.

The murderers were quickly rounded up. But, according to the report, "The fear engendered by the Ampatuans was such that no judge wanted to issue an indictment against Andal Jr, no official in Maguindanao wanted to register the victims' death
certificates, and no company wanted to provide the police with a backhoe to retrieve the bodies."

By 12 December, however, 183 suspects had been identified, including Saudi Mokamad, director of the 1507th Mobile Police Group, who surrendered. He was reportedly one of the senior police officers helping Andal Jr in the abduction and killing. Two days later, the Philippine police filed complaints alleging rebellion against some 600 people, including five more members of the Ampatuan family.

It remains to be seen how the murder and rebellion charges will fare in court," the report said, "but the prospects do not look good, as the fear of the Ampatuans extends even to Manila. For the safety of all concerned, the Supreme Court authorized that criminal proceedings against Andal Jr be moved to Manila. On 16 December, however, the judge assigned the case stepped down, citing concerns for the security of his family and staff.

Another judge has been given the case, but many in the Philippines are skeptical that justice will ever be served."

Horrific as it was, the International Crisis Group concluded, "the Maguindanao massacre opens a window of opportunity for the Philippines to make progress on justice, security and peace. They are all related: advances on justice for the victims of the massacre, however, will require a concerted effort by the government, civil society, the MILF and the international community."

The report concludes with a long series of political, judicial and other reforms the government could put in place to bring justice for the victims and to see that such extraordinarily brutal events do not recur.

But the conditions that brought about the massacre are so deeply ingrained in Philippine government and society that it is unlikely that any of those reforms will be put in place. The odds are that other private armies will continue in place, especially in Mindanao, and that eventually many if not most of the Ampatuan army will be freed to run Maguindanao as they did in the past, with the willing help of the government in Manila. by John Berthelsen Asia Sentinel

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