Taming Mindanao

Mindanao is a hotbed for militants. But there are signs President Begnino Aquino is cracking down.

The violence-wracked Southern Philippines aren’t likely to win any peace prizes in the near future. Decades of civil conflict, deals between local bandits and international jihadists and the yearning by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for a homeland have earned the region a notorious reputation comparable with Somalia.

However, there are signs that the militias, which flourished in Mindanao and the surrounding islands under ally and then-President Gloria Arroyo, are finding it a bit tougher. Arroyo is said to have effectively allowed the militias to act as law enforcers, and they basically did as they liked. In return, they bullied for votes in the lead-up to elections and at the ballot box.

It was a system of bloody coexistence that was highlighted by perhaps the worst politically motivated massacre in the Philippines’ history when 57 people, including 30 journalists, were killed in Maguindanao. The body of a presumed 58th victim hasn’t been found.

Current President Begnino Aquino is attempting to dismantle those militias, and has actually had some success. About half of the 80 private armies in the conflict areas of Mindanao have been broken up since Aquino assumed the presidency in June last year.

There are 41 private armies left in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the government has reinvigorated peace talks with the MILF, a painstakingly slow process that’s moving nevertheless.

The most recent discussions were held in Cotabato City earlier this week, with 16 civil society organisations taking part. Talks were candid and came amid the arrest of another two suspects believed to have been involved with the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 195 people accused in the massacre, 91 suspects have been arrested, while 104 others are still at large.

Tany Dalgan, a former police officer, and Rakim Amil, a civilian volunteer officer of the Ampatuan clan and its militia blamed for the massacre, were arrested as the patriarch of the powerful clan took the stand this week and pleaded not guilty to charges of masterminding the massacre.

To the jeers of the victims’ families Andal Ampatuan Sr, a former governor of Maguindanao, was arraigned with Mohammad Datumanong, an alleged bagman of the clan, for what is also considered the single worst killing of media workers in the world.

One relative said he was torn between joy and pain as proceedings unfolded.

In the immediate aftermath of the Maguindanao massacre doubts were cast over the ability of authorities to deliver justice for the relatives given the Ampatuan’s close ties with the corridors of power in Manila.

Back then, civil war with the MILF had resumed and the surviving leaders from Jemaah Islamiyah were still running amok in concert with the Abu Sayyaf. Since then, Aquino has proven that the bloody problems that have beset the country’s south aren’t totally insurmountable, and Mindanao is now looking at least a little less like Somalia.