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A Philippines massacre tells a cautionary tale to the United States

A small-town vice mayor filing a certificate of candidacy for governor of his province is usually a nonstory.

In the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, that simple act led to the deaths of at least 57 people, many of them women, and 30 of them media workers.

A media vehicle was crumpled with a backhoe, with bodies inside. It was buried together with two other vehicles, more bodies and body parts on a hillside in the town of Ampatuan, named after the clan accused of perpetrating what is called the Maguindanao massacre.

Buluan town Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu said he received a call from his wife, Genalyn, as the murderers approached. He said that before Genalyn's cell phone went dead, she identified the mayor of the town of Datu Unsay, a man named Andal Ampatuan Jr., as the leader of about 100 men who were approaching their convoy and opening fire with rifles and submachine guns.

The bodies of Mangudadatu's wife and other relatives were mutilated. A chainsaw was reportedly used to dismember bodies so the parts could fit snugly into the vehicles.

A common question asked since the massacre on Nov. 23 was how such a reprehensible crime against humanity could be perpetrated in this democratic country.

The short answer is because the Ampatuans could. And the longer answer offers some harsh realities for the United States to consider as it goes forward in Afghanistan dealing with warlords, criminals, shaky politicians and Islamic fundamentalists.

The Ampatuan clan, like many other "warlord" families in the Philippines, believed it could get away with murder. That belief was not unfounded. The massacre brings to 134 the number of media workers murdered in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986. Of that number, 74 were killed since 2001, when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo rose to power. Only a handful of the cases have been solved.

Many of the suspected masterminds are political warlords like the Ampatuans. They rule like liege lords, extracting all the resources in their fiefdoms. Warlord clans are among the biggest illegal loggers, gambling barons, smugglers, gunrunners and drug traffickers in the Philippines. They control every aspect of the criminal justice system, from the police to the prosecution and the judiciary. Philippine laws rarely apply in these fiefdoms, where the local police, militias and sometimes the military function as private armies.

Why are these warlords allowed to thrive? One is for guaranteed political support for the president and the ruling party. Another is to keep lawless elements in check.

The Ampatuans sided with Ferdinand Marcos in crushing the Islamic separatist rebellion shortly after martial law was imposed in 1972.

A peace agreement was signed in 1996 with the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was carved out after a plebiscite.

But it wasn't until 2001 that the Ampatuans' influence in the ARMM grew. The military is believed to have helped Andal Ampatuan Sr. win as governor in 2001. About a dozen Ampatuans currently occupy key positions in the ARMM. The Mangudadatus are themselves distant relatives.

President Arroyo courted the Ampatuans' support, allowing towns to be named after them, and looking the other way amid reports that they were enriching themselves illegally and building up their arsenal. In exchange she received the ARMM's vote in the 2004 presidential race, and then in 2007 for her Senate candidates.

The Ampatuans have served as a foil against the MNLF breakaway group, the ARMM-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Though private armies are banned under the Constitution, President Arroyo allowed local officials in 2006 to organize armed militias as "force multipliers" against lawless elements.

Those militias formed the core of the team that waylaid the Mangudadatu convoy.

A press ID can still serve as protection in Manila, where the government is compelled to show that the rule of law prevails.

But in many areas outside the capital, democracy is but a veneer for the strong-arm rule of tribal clans and political dynasties. In these areas, clans control elections, and violence could erupt for the silliest reasons. Warlords keep their constituents poor and ignorant, but win their support through dole-outs and patronage.

In the island-province of Sulu, where U.S. forces are helping Philippine troops battle al-Qaida-linked terror cells of the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, the two main political opponents have started building up their private armies in the run-up to the elections in May 2010.

The armed conflict has kept the province poor, as in much of the ARMM. This in turn has fed Islamic extremism.

The Maguindanao massacre has sparked international outrage, and President Arroyo has been left with no choice but to go after her allies, the Ampatuans.

Andal Ampatuan Jr. is held without bail in Manila and faces charges for mass murder. His jailer says he fears ghosts, poisoning and being strangled in his sleep.

At least six of his relatives, including his father, the Maguindanao governor, have been indicted in connection with the massacre. But because of the weakness of Philippine democratic institutions, there are concerns that the cases will not prosper.

Like Afghanistan and Iraq, the Philippines is a good example of the fact that there is so much more to democracy than free elections.

Members of the Ampatuan clan are running in the 2010 elections.

Some of them might win.

Ana Marie Pamintuan is executive editor of the Philippine Star in Manila. Two years ago, she spent several weeks in the United States under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, including time in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom.

A Philippines massacre tells a cautionary tale to the United States 12/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 7, 2009 11:41am]
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