Yesterday in the Philippines, Ismael Mangudadatu registered to run for governor of Maguindanao province on the southern island of Mindanao. It doesn’t sound like an unusual event unless you know that on Monday 57 men and women on their way to register Mangudadatu were massacred, execution style.
The group included Mangudadatu’s wife, Genalyn, and other relatives, and 22 Filipino journalists.
Mangudadatu and his supporters had thought it would be safe to send his female relatives to register his candidacy even though he knew that people in the province, primarily the powerful Ampatuan family, were out to prevent him from running. Maguindanao, after all, is predominantly a Muslim province, and women are traditionally safe even from the bitterest enemies. Besides, there were many journalists in the group to help keep them safe.
The attack, according to the TimesOnline of London, “has raised questions about the relationship between the gangster clans such as the Ampatuan family and the highest levels of the Philippines metropolitan elite.
“Yesterday Andal Ampatuan Jr, the son of one of the most powerful men in Mindanao, was charged with seven counts of murder. “He was the one who gave the instructions,” Agnes Devanadera, the Justice Minister, said. “He was among those … who killed the victims.’
“Until they were expelled this week, Mr. Ampatuan and his father were important members of the ruling party of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the President. Her Government has also moved against members of its security forces suspected of being complicit in the violence.”
The National Union of Journalists of The Philippines issued this statement:
Today we say, “Enough.”
The massacre of 57 people in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao goes beyond a rido, or clan war. The sheer scope of barbarity, the brazenness of the murders betrays the perpetrators’ belief in being beyond the reach of the law.
Women, lawyers and journalists – no one escaped the butchers’ wrath. Fifty-seven people killed in broad daylight. The murderers had planned the deed, down to the mass burial of victims. That is the mark of the untouchable.
The Ampatuan massacre not only highlights the capacity for abuse by a political clan that has acted as ruler, judge, jury and executioner in its feudal turf; it is the graphic proof that State forces actually abet crime and protect criminals who provide favors for government officials.
Amid the outrage, even as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo placed Maguindanao in a state of emergency, the government tried to downplay the role of the Ampatuan clan in the massacre.
Filipinos have been jailed, tortured and killed for petty crimes and for exercising their right to peaceful dissent. Yet PNP officials displayed an abject reluctance to even name the Ampatuans as suspects. President Arroyo even issued a public reaffirmation of her friendship with the Ampatuans. And for good reason.
The Ampatuans, feudal rulers of Maguindanao, gifted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with unbelievable margins of victory in the 2004 polls. They delivered the same service for her allies in 2007 election. They provide food and money for the military and para-military forces. They command a proxy army in the fight against secessionist rebels.
The Ampatuans and other warlords across the country have been doing these for a succession of administrations. Philippine leaders like to boast of our democracy. What confront us are images of a failed State, where institutions are unable to exercise mandated functions, and the central government cedes substantial power to warlords who maintain private armies, which include “civilian volunteers.”
The cozy ties between central government and local warlords blanket the Philippine countryside with a climate of fear born of a culture of impunity. While this is a long-standing problem, it has reached monstrous proportions under the Arroyo administration, which has spent the nine years devouring the very bases of public power in its relentless effort to privatize that power as the public monies.
We have had enough.
We demand the arrest and prosecution of all persons involved in the Ampatuan massacre, especially the masterminds. We demand the immediate suspension from office of all persons linked to the crime.
We demand the immediate arrest of all police and military officials who, by commission or omission, allowed the massacre to happen. We demand full punishment for all officers that tried to coddle the perpetrators of this massacre.
We demand the creation of an independent commission, to include media representatives, to probe the massacre and the events that led to it.
We demand that a special court with a presiding judge of impeccable credentials undertake the trial of the suspects in the Ampatuan massacre.
We demand that media access be guaranteed in all stages and processes of the investigation and prosecution.
We demand full and immediate coverage of victims’ families and witnesses in the witness protection program.
We demand the immediate dismantling and disarmament of para-military forces nationwide as they have long been used as private armies of local warlords.
We demand the creation of an independent body composed of impartial persons of the highest integrity to oversee the disarming of para-military forces and the disposition of their arms.
We also demand an overhaul of a justice system that rewards criminals and tramples on the innocent.
We … concerned Filipino individuals and organizations vow to hold a national protest to demand meaningful action from this administration. If government is unwilling to govern, IT MUST STEP DOWN. Only when the culture of impunity has been defeated can this nation proceed with the task of building peace and democracy in the Philippines.
On a Facebook page, journalist Inday Espina-Varona, said the statement “is not limited to journalists. It is NOT limited to just demanding justice for the Ampatuan massacre victims. It contains demands that, hopefully, can start the ball rolling for badly needed reforms.
“These reforms will not change our society overnight. But if we don’t even start, we’ll be forever trapped in this cycle of violence and corruption.
“The statement is non-partisan. The call is for a non-partisan national protest. It is our hope that you, all of us, prod our organizations, our churches, political parties to sit down and work together and, please, dear god, put aside self interests for a while.”
An Associated Press report quotes local police saying that six senior officers, including the provincial police chief and his deputy, 20 members of Ampatuan township’s police station and nearly 400 militiamen were in custody.
For the Philippines, unfortunately, that’s just a start. And the real test will come when it’s time to charge and prosecute those believed to be involved in the massacre.