by Alan Robles
Even to a country accustomed to political murder and violence, what happened in the southern Muslim province of Maguindanao is stupefying.
In the full light of day, at least 100 armed men blocked a convoy packed with journalists, supporters, relatives and the wife of a local vice-mayor, Ishmael Mangudadatu . The kidnappers forced the vehicles to detour to another road, made the passengers alight and then shot and hacked the prisoners to death. There are reports they beat and raped the women first. They then used a backhoe – a tractor-mounted excavator – to dig mass graves and pack the bodies in.
The murderers aparently fled when they spotted a military helicopter reconnoitering the area, leaving authorities to arrive later in the killing ground. Bullet-ridden bodies lay near blood spattered vehicles; dozens of corpses – crushed and torn by the excavator – lay in shallow pits. After two days of digging the police have found several graves and recovered 52 bodies, and are unsure how many more they will find. Among the dead: at least 12 reporters, the heaviest single loss of journalists in history . One of the slain women was pregnant. Workers have also unearthed three vehicles, one of them allegedly marked “UNDP.”
What authorities seem to have discovered is nothing less than a cemetery from hell, a field where people – and their cars – are made to disappear. This is in a province dominated by governor Andal Ampatuan, the head of a clan and close political ally of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The latest victims had been on the way to the provincial capital to register the vice-mayor Mangudadatu as a candidate for governor in the May 2010 elections. The candidate himself, a member of a clan opposed to Ampatuan's, had received death threats. So he sent his wife and two sisters – along with non government organization activists and more than a dozen journalists – to register on his behalf. He no doubt reasoned that nobody would dare attack women and reporters.
His logic proved fatally flawed, but only perhaps because the barbarity that ensued is unprecedented and so could not be predicted.
What has not been unpredictable is the action of this government. Apart from calling on police to solve the crime immediately, President Arroyo has declined to directly and publicly call on governor Ampatuan for an explanation. Nor has she pressed him to solve the massacre.
This has been standard behavior for this administration: it moves slowly when close poltical allies are implicated in crimes -- and Ampatuan is a significant power player. The area he governs has 1.5 million registered voters.
Perhaps some Filipinos might think this is just “politics as usual”, made more vicious by the complicated clan warfare which has plagued Muslim Mindanao. They would be wrong. The sheer scale and barbarity of the massacre sets it apart from previous acts of violence, whether murder, bombing or kidnapping. What was perpetrated in Maguindanao brings the words “ethnic cleansing” and “mass murder” to mind. To have thought they could simply make dozens of people vanish, the criminals were either stupid -- or breathtakingly brazen.
Around the time the victims were being kidnapped, governor Ampatuan himself was in Manila, holding a meeting with President Arroyo. Could it be possible that the governor was unaware that 100 armed men were wandering around his province? Nobody here believes that for a minute. All the reports written about the Ampatuans have basically one message: they control Maguindanao (one town is named after the family) and it is unsafe to oppose them.
In fact vice mayor Mangudadatu had asked the police to protect his wife's convoy, but his request was rejected. Witnesses now claim the deputy police chief and two other policemen were present at the massacre.
The butchery at Maguindanao demonstrates how deranged politics in the country have become: at their root is the fact that for generations politics here have been controlled by elites, dynasties and warlords who are above the law. The country has yet to punish the Marcos family for the crimes of the Martial Law dictatorship; former president Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder two years ago, but was immediately pardoned by Arroyo.
The central theme in all this is impunity. The powerful are not held accountable. What makes the irony particularly black and bitter is that the powerful are using public resources. The excavator used in the mass grave was government property. The murderers – military officials now say many of the killers were memebers of Ampatuan's private army – were issued weapons paid for by taxpayers. For their part, the Ampatuans have not issued any statement so far.
The only question now is whether the public outrage caused by the massacre will be strong enough to prod the government to actually bring the killers to justice, or whether “politics as usual”, especially with an election coming next year, will prevail. The horror in the mass graves speaks for itself: is President Arroyo listening?