WHO OWNS THAT BACKHOE? (Revisiting the Ampatuan Massacre)

Who doesn’t?

Only those who did not kowtow, did not pander, did not channel funds and arms to the Ampatuans of Maguindanao.

Only those who refused to keep silent as the clan harassed and burned and killed to wrest control of lands to annex for their kingdom.

Only those who did not bargain away people’s lives and rights for a slot in command tickets come election time.

Photo from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines
Photo from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines

We must grieve and call for justice on behalf of 58 persons retrieved from under Maguindanao’s soil. We must never forget the carnage of November 23, 2009.

Yet neither should we overlook the precedents and the acts of commission and omission that built the perfect scenario for the Ampatuan massacre.

Context is everything. Until we address the roots of the massacre, we will keep on counting the lives the sacrificed on the altar of greed and power.

THIS WHAT IMPUNITY IS ALL ABOUT – “too much power, too little accountability”.

AMPATUAN NEWThe Ampatuan massacre did not spring from a vacuum. The weak Philippine state has long provided rich soil for the seeds of carnage. A day after the massacre, I retrieved a 2007 interview of then Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan by MindaNews’ Carol Arguillas.

Here is Ampatuan unfiltered:

“Actually, Maguindanao province is an extension of the home province of Her Excellency, PGMA (President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) which is Pampanga. Here in Maguindanao, considering that we have 20 mayors unopposed, these 20 mayors are allies of the administration, even those areas with opponents – Pagalungan and Talitay – the opponents are all allies of the administration.”

Arguillas’ interview was largely about the Ampatuan clan’s all-out support for Mrs. Arroyo in the 2007 elections. Following the 2009 massacre — around the time politicians were registering as contenders for the 2010 polls — the country woke up to find just what underpinned this support:

  • Free flow of arms and ammunition from the Armed Forces of the Philippines
  • Governance dictated by only a few privileged persons
  • Governance implemented according to the needs of these privileged persons
  • The resulting absence of government services – from courts to health to education
  • Years of public monies being diverted into the pockets of local warlords – who then pay back the favor by mowing down anyone opposed to their patrons
AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Around a hundred men implemented that act of mayhem, which also holds the record for the world’s deadliest attack on journalists. It was no ordinary band of “bandits”. The perpetrators were led Shariff Aguak Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. and a senior police office, Sr. Inspector Dicay. They brought practically the entire security apparatus of Shariff Aguak and, presumably, Ampatuan town.  This was a hydra — and its creator wasn’t just then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The Ampatuan monster was birthed by a cabal of powerful political and economic clans who had for years paid homage to warlords, nurtured them, allowed them to raid the state treasury and turned a blind eye to mounting reports of rights violations, and neglect of the most basic of government services.

An Inquirer.Net report states:

“The Ampatuans and Mangudadatus have reigned in Maguindanao politics since 1986 when the revolutionary government of then President Corazon Aquino appointed officers-in-charge to local elective posts of mayors, municipal, provincial and village legislators, as well as governors and their deputies.

The patriarchs of both clans— Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. and Datu Pua Mangudadatu —were appointed mayors of their respective municipalities, Maganoy (now Shariff Aguak) and Buluan, Maguindanao.

The two men never lost an election and their children have also entered politics and emerged winners, too. Many saw their political careers thrive in the positions they have held, among them, Governor Zaldy Uy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and incumbent Buluan town Vice-Mayor Esmael Toto Mangudadatu, who is now said to be running for Maguindanao governor, the post to be left by Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. to his son, Andal Jr.”

A 2008 report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism notes that the Ampatuans consolidated power since 2001.

The 1987 Constitution bans private armed groups. In July 2006, however, the Arroyo administration issued Executive Order 546, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers” in the fight against insurgents. In practice, the EO allows local officials to convert their private armed groups into legal entities with a fancy name: civilian volunteer organizations (CVO).

That probably sounds familiar to many Filipinos across the country. Even today, as the 2016 election fever starts, we hear about “force multipliers”. We also have continuing reports of political murders, including those targeting journalists, judges, activists and lawyers.

No Accountability

Slide1The funds that underwrote the Ampatuan empire belonged to the people. These funds were stolen systematically through the years.

It was easy to divert the money because close to a quarter of the Philippine national budget has always been available for leaders to dispense according to their whims.

It was easy to divert because in the filthy bed of pigs that normally goes by the name of Congress, members neglect oversight tasks in return for favors that allow them to perpetuate power through generations of entitled individuals.

It was easy to divert because when people are poor and hungry and they face the barrels of guns, they are easily cowed. So instead of fighting for their due, they accept crumbs from the lords’ tables.

The weak cannot be faulted for propping up the mighty. Not when their “betters” — those who think they know better – are equally guilty of sacrificing principles for political exigencies.

The coerced can be forgiven their meekness. Those who play with the levers of power, in the hope that they can influence the outcome of events, come out with splatters of blood in their hands.

You see, the Ampatuan massacre isn’t just about one town, one province, one region. It is not the only massacre that highlights the seed of carnage. Only when those who can stand between the guns and the cowed populace speak out and walk their talk can we even begin to hope to rid the national soil of the toxins of impunity.