November 26, 2009

Carnage waiting to happen

It was a carnage waiting to happen. In the wild, wild province of Maguindanao, ruled since 2001 by the Ampatuan clan, long-time political allies of de facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the November 23 massacre of 57 people and counting, could be chalked up as another grizzly case of wanton violence between two warring political clans. Yet the brutality, the brazenness, and the crass utilization of a monopoly of political power to carry out this hideous mass murder continues to shock and draw universal condemnation.

The victims include the wife and two pregnant women relatives of Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu, a slew of journalists from outside the province (who presumably could muster the courage and the independence to cover the event), two intrepid human rights lawyers and even several motorists who trailed the convoy as it set out for Sharif Aguak to file the vice mayor’s certificate of candidacy. The obvious intent of the brains behind the murders was to prevent the filing from taking place but with what overkill!

Only people who are in authority and are confident they are above the law could have engineered a massacre in broad daylight such as this. The accusing finger points unwaveringly in the direction of the Ampatuans who have been the uncontested overlords in Maguindanao since Mrs. Arroyo took power.

The circumstantial evidence is compelling; i.e. the public and private threats against the vice mayor from the incumbent governor; the reported call of Genalyn Mangudadatu, the vice mayor’s wife, that Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., son of Gov. Ampatuan, led the more than 100 armed men that waylaid them; the refusal of the PNP and AFP commanders in the province to provide security for the convoy; the sighting of local police plus paramilitary forces among the killing horde; the backhoe traced to the provincial government that was used in excavating the hole in which some of the victims and their vehicles were buried; and the complete lack of action or even any credible statement from the responsible local government officials – all members of the Ampatuan clan – regarding the horrible crimes that took place within their jurisdiction, or more precisely, their feudal fiefdom .

And it is precisely because the prime suspects involve members of this well-armed warlord clan holding sway in Maguindanao, a province that has been key to Mrs. Arroyo’s and administration candidates’ tainted victories in past elections, that government is proceeding ever so slowly and cautiously in its response, despite pronouncements that it will undertake “immediate and relentless pursuit” of the perpetrators of the massacre.

First, a “crisis committee” led by Presidential Adviser Dureza is dispatched to appeal to the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus to cooperate in the investigation. Hot pursuit should have been the immediate action of police and military authorities but they instead preoccupy themselves with preventing “a breakdown in law and order” in anticipation of retaliation by the aggrieved members of the Mangudadatu clan.

A “state of emergency” is declared in Maguindanao but the implicated local government officials are not administratively suspended to prevent them from using their positions to obstruct the investigation, destroy evidence or shield suspects. They are not even being called by the police for questioning. The PNP spokesperson could only say lamely that they could not declare much less arrest anyone as a suspect without a written complaint from the aggrieved parties.

All of a sudden, government is ever so wary about violating the due process rights of the implicated Ampatuans. Warrantless arrests, Dureza assured, will not be resorted to even in a “state of emergency”. Former Justice Secretary and now presidential adviser on legal affairs, Raul Gonzales, he who has been quick to call for the arrest of Leftist parliamentarians on flimsy charges of “conspiracy to commit rebellion”, cautions against acting hastily against the Ampatuans in the absence of so-called solid evidence.

Mrs. Arroyo, while declaring a “national day of mourning” for the victims conspicuously does not condole with any of their bereaved relatives as is her wont but goes to her home province instead to inaugurate a highway. Strange behavior if not for the fact that she likely still hasn’t figured a way out of her latest dilemma: how is she to control the massive political fallout with one of her closest allies doing the unthinkable, while not doing anything to provoke the Ampatuans into spilling the beans on the massive cheating that has been taking place in Maguindanao, should she appear to be favoring the Mangudadatus in any fashion.

Executive Secretary Ermita sheepishly states that the government does not control everything that happens “on the ground” to excuse itself from doing anything to prevent the carnage. However, except for the Arroyo regime which is still very much in denial, almost all commentary and statements issued by various groups so far say that the conditions for the massacre had been laid by the Arroyo regime’s own policies and actuations.

KARAPATAN, the human rights alliance, ascribes to Oplan Bantay Laya, the Arroyo regime's counter-insurgency program, the mindset among the powers-that-be that led to the Maguindanao massacre: “Under OBL, the recruitment and arming of paramilitary groups such as the CAFGU and civilian volunteer organizations have persisted and in fact have been resorted to by the government in its mad design of purportedly ending the insurgency by 2010.”

“With this counter-insurgency program, so many victims, easily labeled as ‘fronts’ of ‘communist organizations’ and ‘enemies of the state’ have turned up dead, killed in a brutal manner, and some disappeared; with the Arroyo government doing nothing to stop the killings, disappearances and other human rights violations. In fact, it even heaped praises for known perpetrators identified with these crimes. Under this counter-insurgency scheme, the Arroyo government has become the biggest warlord in the land.”

“For far too long has this regime considered itself a law above the citizens, contravening the laws laid out in the legal instruments of the land so much so that its coddled political allies have imbibed the mindset that they, too, can commit such transgressions with impunity."
This state of impunity has likewise abetted fraud and plunder at the highest reaches of government, with the likes of Garci, Bolante, Abalos and no less than the first couple spared from an honest-to-goodness investigation, prosecution and conviction.

The Arroyo regime rightly deserves the people’s condemnation for its bloodied hand in this most vile crime against humanity. With the unrepentant Arroyo regime still in place and its kid gloves treatment of the Ampatuans, we certainly have not seen the last or even the worst of its atrocities. #

*Published in Business World
27-28 November 2009


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