By any measure, the warlords of Mindanao outdid themselves on November 23 last year, with the sheer callousness of the massacre that left 57 people dead and half-buried in mass graves thrusting their bloody local differences back into newspapers around the world.
For years, foreign editors have preferred to ignore the civil conflict that has dominated the region since the 1970s. The fact is life on the west coast of Mindanao can be just as dangerous as the southern provinces of Afghanistan or the hinterland of Iraq. But a combination of fatigue and a lack of relevance to the outside world had pushed the insurgencies and tragedies of Philippine militia life firmly towards the bottom of the international news agenda.
There were exceptions–in 2000, for example, when local bandits masquerading as freedom fighters crossed the maritime border into Malaysia and began kidnapping Western tourists and ransoming them off.
That outfit was the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which, along with the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), grew in notoriety once their ties to Islamic independence groups in Mindanao were laid bare in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist strikes against New York and Washington.
It was then that the United States declared the Philippines the second front in its ‘War on Terror’ and poured millions of dollars into the country’s south, dispatching troops and advisors in an attempt to shore-up the position of Filipino President Gloria Arroyo.
At that point, Arroyo had only just replaced her predecessor Joseph Estrada, but was already providing a welcome relief for traditional allies of the Philippines who had lost patience with the gross corruption that had thrived over the previous three years.
However, the massacre has highlighted troubling inconsistencies in relations between the government and the powerful family militias. And, with a general election scheduled for May, the incident has raised serious doubts about US efforts so far in combating insurgencies and securing the area.
Insurgents, Guns and Clans
Al Jacinto’s family has published the Mindanao Examiner for four years. It’s a typical local newspaper, and one that takes home-town issues to a level noticeable to outsiders.
Jacinto wears many hats: publisher, reporter, editor, sales executive.
He has covered the civil war in Mindanao and surrounding islands from all angles and broadened the family’s interests into film and TV production with cable channels in Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga City.
When news of the single biggest massacre of journalists in history broke, Jacinto says he was interviewing the regional army spokesman in central Mindanao.
‘I was holding back tears,’ he says. ‘The killings of the journalists came as a shock to all of us. I have some friends who were brutally killed.’
‘We live in a small world in the Philippines–anything bad that happens to a journalist is one deadly stab in our heart. We’re journalists; we are only messengers of truth.’
The trigger for the massacre was a decision by Esmail ‘Toto’ Mangudadatu to enter the race for the governorship of Maguindanao Province, which was run as a private fiefdom by the Ampatuan family for the previous decade under the political patronage of Manila.
The slaughter in November was immediately blamed on the Ampatuans, any challenge to the authority of whom had been most unwelcome. But the bloodiness of their capabilities was tragically underestimated that day.
A convoy of 31 journalists and 16 political activists and supporters set off to file a certificate of candidacy on behalf of Toto, who planned to run against Andal Jr. Ampatuan in upcoming elections.
However, the convoy was ambushed by 100 armed men and steered off the main road where the men and women, including Toto’s wife and sister, were shot with M-16s or butchered with machetes before being buried in hastily dug shallow graves.
Another 10 witnesses who happened to be passing by suffered the same fate. The bodies of the women were mutilated.
Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with the Hong Kong-based security firm Allan & Associates, says the Philippine military, political and regional elites have long been linked to tribal and family clans such as the Ampatuans.
‘Political violence is endemic in the Philippines,’ he says. ‘The impact of the Maguindanao massacre reflects the scale of the killings rather than the use of extreme force.’
Andal Jr. is the scion of the powerful Ampatuan family and the alleged mastermind of the November massacre. His father, Andal Senior, was Maguindanao governor at the time of the murders, while another two siblings–Zaldy and younger brother Sajid–and a cousin Akmad Ampatuan have also been implicated.
The family is Muslim but beyond that, their adherence to The Koran–often interpreted as a warrior’s code–is questionable. They commanded a combined force of about 500 to 600 men that had a hard-won reputation for bullying and had been at loggerheads with the Mangudadatus for months.
‘The clan militias are an integral part of the country’s traditional system of governance and control,’ Greenwood says. ‘Their actions at a local level are often key drivers in fuelling the NPA and Moro insurgencies.’
When the ASG first emerged just over a decade ago, they proved themselves just as capable of inflicting the same type of savagery that befell the hapless victims in Maguindanao. JI, meanwhile, was working quietly in the background, in cahoots with al-Qaida.
Their campaign for an Islamic state would lead to a string of bombings, including the 2002 attacks on Bali that left more than 200 dead. And they made up just two of the groups that formed an alphabet soup of insurgent groups that bedevilled the Philippines.
The New Peoples Army (NPA) runs the communist insurgency while the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was founded on more traditional values and remains prominent. Its predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front, had fought for an autonomous region that was forged out of 1976 peace talks brokered by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
But that agreement, like so many that followed, failed to meet expectations, and the MNLF splintered with militants, forging the MILF to lead a renewed push for a Moro homeland and autonomous rule.
Their war is over indigenous rights as opposed to militant Islamic dictates that crave a wider sovereign border that traverses international borders and imposes Sharia Law. It’s an important point, and one not lost on Washington, which has supported negotiations with the MILF while running a military campaign against JI and the 16 factions that make up the ASG.
The multiple layers of these insurgent groups share a common history and a common enemy in Christian Manila, making for sometimes convenient bed partners. But the failed peace deals and cross-pollination has also blurred the distinctions that once separated ‘noble’ causes from banditry and extortion that in turn has formed the foundations on which the Ampatuan clan built its powerbase.
Unable to score an outright victory against the MILF in the south, governments in Manila were forced into a multitude of individual deals with a myriad of factions who could negotiate and enforce a local peace.
‘The last decade has been the fiefdom of the Ampatuan family,’ the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in its study of the massacre. ‘Political patronage by successive governments in Manila, most notably by the Arroyo administration, allowed the Ampatuans to amass great wealth and unchecked power…[including] 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.’
Fearing an outbreak of clan violence after the arrests, more than 500 families fled Maguindanao and have not returned since.
The Stigma in Manila
The political ramifications for Manila of all of this are enormous, and the massacre could not have come at a worst time, as Arroyo attempts to re-shape her political stock for the May 10 elections.
The constitution only allows a president to sit for a single six-year term. However, Arroyo intends to run for congress, where a seat would offer her limited immunity against any future prosecution.
Her critics have consistently alleged gross corruption within her administration and family and claim her bid for congress is a ploy to remain in power after she steps down on June 30, with her allies pushing for a shift to a parliamentary form of government that in turn would enable her to run for prime minister.
Arroyo is widely expected to win in her home province of Pampanga. But her personal popularity in the Central Luzon seat is far from uniform in the rest of the country, where her party, Lakas-Kampi, and their bright presidential candidate Gilbert Teodoro are struggling.
‘The impact of the Maguindanao massacre will in part depend on how Manila deals with those accused of involvement in the killings, though it’s unlikely any formal legal case will be ready before the May polls,’ Greenwood says, adding that any indication that the government was going soft on the Ampatuans would run the risk of encouraging similar groups to emulate them. Yet at the same time, any strong display of official censure could provoke a violent backlash.
Teodoro reacted quickly and had the Ampatuans evicted from Lakas-Kampi.
But a separate criminal investigation was ordered by Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Versoza into allegations the four detained Ampatuans were enjoying the type of treatment not normally afforded those on murder charges.
So ingrained into the local law and order culture were they that clan members were allowed to use their mobile phones, had catered food delivered and a servant to clean their cells. Andal Sr. was confined to an ‘Officer’s Ward’ of a health facility where standing procedures were ignored and he was not handcuffed to his bed. One doctor said his illness did not justify the medical attention being given him, while police and military personnel at the military camp in eastern Mindanao where the clan leaders were being held argued the Ampatuans were entitled to the same rights as one of their own wounded soldiers.
Such impunity, coupled with bloody strikes by MILF insurgents that have significantly escalated since an agreement on a Moro homeland was ruled unconstitutional and struck down in October 2008, provides an intimidating backdrop as candidates prepare for the hustings.
‘The NPA and Moro groups can be expected to add to the mix, which will serve to disperse the security forces and leave large areas of the country with minimal cover,’ Greenwood says.
Such concerns have prompted observers including Keith Loveard, a regional security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, to warn of the potential for May’s poll to be the bloodiest yet, even when measured against the Philippines violent electoral past.
Observers say a combination of factors, ranging from poverty to diminishing resources at a local level, divisions within the military and the absence of a strong presidential candidate, will likely only aggravate an already volatile situation.
‘In the regional context, the Philippines has long had a reputation for the rule of the gun and the massacre certainly proved just how true this is,’ Loveard says. ‘No president to date has been able to adopt a realistic program to curb the power of private militias or to control access to guns…This failure logically makes the coming elections a likely free-for-all in which the large variety of groups pushing for a share in power on a national or local level will use violence to achieve their ends, at the cost of course of the ordinary people.’
Beyond the Second Front
Across in Malaysia there are no shortages of victims from the conflicts in the Southern Philippines. Hundreds of thousands of them live in UN-sanctioned and illegal refugee camps scattered on the east and west coasts of Sabah, the Malaysian state in north Borneo.
Two generations have grown up in water villages like Palau Gaya, off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, and in Kampong Hidiyat or The Icebox on the outskirts of Tawau. They offer a stark and embarrassing reminder of the decades of war and the moral paralysis within the United Nations to afford some kind of comfort for the victims.
And in security circles the east coast of Sabah–a short boat ride from the Southern Philippines–is also known as a transit route for smugglers, bandits and terrorists moving between Mindanao and Indonesia.
Here, authorities have intensified security along the maritime border because of the continued strife in the Southern Philippines that erupted after the November massacre and mid-January warnings from the United States and Australia against travel to remote islands where the ASG has kidnapped and killed foreigners in the past.
On January 27, Malaysian authorities announced they had arrested ten people with links to international terrorists. Sources in Malaysia reportedly linked the ten to al-Qaida and the Nigerian student who attempted to blow-up a US-bound flight on Christmas Day, while in the Philippines there were suggestions of links to JI and the ongoing mess in Mindanao.
The Rajah Solaiman Movement is the fanatical fringe of Balik Islam, a movement of Christian converts (who prefer to be known as ‘reverts’) to Wahabi Islam. They specialize in urban sabotage and are allegedly funded with Saudi money through charitable fronts in Mindanao.
‘It’s arguable that Abu Sayyaf and other groups such as Rajah Solaiman produce large numbers of victims through bombing campaigns. But this is just one part of a much larger picture in which violence is effectively condoned,’ Loveard says. ‘In reality the national security picture in the Philippines is an extremely complex picture of violent groups and an almost complete lack of real control on the part of the government.’
What Manila will do next is a subject that has gripped the nation with all the trappings of the tawdry B-grade movies that made Estrada, the former actor turned president, rather famous.
Commentators and analysts are united in calling for a speedy trial, a ban on civilian militias and private funding of the police and military, while the ICG says the international community should step in and assist in forensic analysis of the massacre site, witness protection and in freezing any international assets held by the Ampatuan clan abroad.
It also urged the MILF and the government to pursue suspects of the Ampatuan private army, which would add some momentum to any peace talks, and called on the international media and civil society ‘to keep the case front and centre in the public eye to demand prosecution,’ even as the country moves into the election.
International assistance has been forthcoming, and given the media’s record on dealing with its own, the Maguindanao Massacre will continue to command public attention for a long time to come and the Ampatuan clan will be rewarded with a fitting place in history.
But whether Arroyo and the authorities in Manila have the nerve to prosecute, end the patronage game and deal with the militias is a question that is providing a dramatic backdrop for the upcoming poll.
Unfortunately, Philippine history hardly encourages faith in the government to handle such matters.
‘The external impact of the massacre has been to draw attention to the country’s complex skein of multi-layered clan and tribal based groups that provide political support to the centre in exchange for a high degree of local autonomy,’ Greenwood says.
‘Clearly the deal broke down on November 23 from Manila’s perspective, but the nature of Philippine society and political culture rooted in the ruling ‘latifundias’ reliance on informal extra-legal support from regional warlords to impose an approximation of order through a local version of Danegeld means that little action will–or can–be taken to dismantle the system.’
In other words, as long-time observer and author of Marcos and Beyond Karl Wilson put it: ‘That’s just the way it is here.’