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Philippine massacre facilitated by confluence of factors

The attack on a convoy of political activists and journalists in Mindanao that left 57 dead was made possible by a culture of impunity and clan feuds.

December 08, 2009|By W. Scott Thompson

Writing From Manila — There's a tendency for eyes to glaze over when reports of violence in the Philippines are reported. "Sorry for the redundancy," we say. But the Nov. 23 massacre of 57 people merits consideration. The victims were supporters and local journalists accompanying a woman on her way to file nomination papers for her husband's run for provincial governor on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The candidate had reportedly received death threats, and some authorities called this a politically motivated attack. The provincial governor and his son, leaders of the Ampatuan clan, are among those held in the case.

How was such an attack possible?

There are three reasons. First, the culture of impunity wherever President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is involved. Second, the culture of rido, or clan feuds, in Mindanao, and third, defects in the Filipino judicial system.

It is almost unbelievable, but a presidential spokesperson all but whitewashed the massacre in a news conference. The Ampatuan clan, Arroyo's chief ally in Mindanao, was instrumental in helping her gain the "1-million" vote majority that she demanded of her election commissioner in the 2004 election. It is Mindanao where vote swings occur; the government can even decide which vote-laden planes can land, former government officials who asked not to be named have told me.

The deputy press spokesperson said that she didn't think "the president's friendship with the Ampatuans will be severed." She further said that "just because they're in this situation doesn't mean we will turn our backs on them." She explained that Arroyo, in her role as chief executive, acts separately from her role in sustaining political alliances, and thus she could still be "friends" with the family even if "they indeed committed the crime."

Of course, once reality set it and there was a huge international outcry, Arroyo had to take at least cosmetic steps to separate herself from her Ampatuan allies (ousting them from her political party, a meaningless gesture).

That is a sufficient explanation of the massacre: The Ampatuans assumed they could get away with it, given the 16 leadership positions they hold on the huge island, including two governorships.

A Pulse Asia survey in 2007 found Arroyo to be the most corrupt president in Filipino history. They're wrong; Ferdinand Marcos, who reportedly looted up to $30 billion, was worse, but then we're talking about perceptions with Arroyo. The ZTE case, involving a broadband contract with a Chinese company in which Arroyo's husband and others reportedly sought a 130% kickback for friends and his family, is the kind of corruption on people's minds. The usual cut in past foreign investments has been 20%. An insider said in a not-for-attribution interview that, in prosecuting the case, government officials were merely trying to "limit the greed" of the first family. Indeed.

The second factor in this massacre is rido, or clan-based violence. A study published by the Asia Foundation and conducted by Moctar I. Matuan of Mindanao State University-Marawi found that in 337 rido cases from 1994 to 2004, 798 people died and 104 were injured. Although 82 cases were filed in court, only eight assailants were imprisoned. "Not a single rido was settled by the Philippine justice system," he said.

In southern Mindanao, if you are in power, you've got both guns and patronage. Even the backhoe used to dig the trench in which the bodies were found had the name of Gov. Andal Ampatuan, the clan patriarch, on it.

Third, the judicial system as a whole shares the blame. It's slow enough even under a reformist president trying to clean up the police and courts, as in the 1990s under Fidel V. Ramos. But the standards set at Malacanang Palace then at least slowed down violence and ended extrajudicial killings by presidential hirelings. Ramos was succeeded by a buffoon, the actor Joseph "Erap" Estrada, whose ouster was in part the result of a brutal killing of an advisor to his opponents. During Arroyo's presidency, more than 1,000 killings and abductions of nongovernmental organization workers and journalists have occurred, according to one United Nations report. It's rather hard to stand up for order and justice when things like that happen -- and could not have happened, it appears, without a blessing from on high.

The corruption spills down to the lowest levels, and I speak from personal experience. A group of six men broke into my house up to 20 times over a one-year period and stole my car and credit cards. A provincial court found nothing wrong with this, but finally, after more than two years and a long appeal, the Department of Justice decided that there was something wrong.

These men have finally been charged. None of them has shown any contrition. At least two have justified their alleged crimes on the basis that I am not a Filipino and therefore justice does not apply.

At one point, an older official, who was examining my complaint on one of the break-ins, said, "This will take 10,000 pesos, and I can't guarantee that we won't need more as it goes up the system." That's about $210 -- just to get him to consider the case. Happily, the younger officials are more idealistic -- and none I've encountered was interested in bribes.

What is needed in the Philippines is a truly clean sweep. That is why the whole political system has been focused on Arroyo's attempts -- by any means -- to stay in office past her "elected" term ending in June. But it should have been focused on abuse throughout the Philippines. The Mindanao massacre wouldn't have happened had the chief executive been doing her job. Rido is just a symptom of a system where abuse starts at the top.

W. Scott Thompson, professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is an expert on Southeast Asia now living in Bali and Manila.

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