Saturday, December 05, 2009

Saving us from political violence

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel describes “history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.”

The recent massacre of 57 innocent civilians in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, along with the two major world conflicts of the last century and numerous violent incidents from Somalia to Iraq show how fragile human society has become. So prevalent is violence in human history that a good part of mankind’s efforts can be understood in terms of our attempts to deal with violence. With the state’s involvement in this human carnage, perhaps the ultimate issue we have to confront is how we can prevent political differences from becoming violent.

Justice, by no means, will be served fully well with the simple filing of charges against Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect in the Maguindanao barbarity. It only represents the first step, even though symbolic as it is against a political clan that is inextricably tied to the present occupant in Malacanang. All those who participated, directly or indirectly, those who ordered the slaughter, and those who allowed it to happen should be arrested, prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the quest for justice should not end there.

Whether the ends of justice will be served in this case remains to be seen, however.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose ties with the Ampatuan clan are clearly established, declared a “national day of mourning” for the victims of the massacre, yet she would rather go home to her province of Pampanga to inaugurate a highway instead of condoling with the victims’ families and relatives. Arroyo must be grinning from ear to ear during her private moments thanking her stars that this grievous crime by her staunch political ally did not happen in her first year of office or when she was campaigning for the presidency.

Even as she finally steps down from the presidency in June 2010, her hands would always be stained with the blood that this massacre has spilled. How could anyone forget the massive cheating in Maguindanao in the 2004 national elections that helped her secure the presidency? She was also responsible in legitimizing Ampatuan’s private army by allowing the senior Ampatuan and all local government officials to deputize and arm their “barangay tanods” as part of her campaign against the Muslim insurgency. Arroyo also tolerated the Ampatuan clan’s grand scheme of divvying up the province’s territorial jurisdiction into several towns so that they may be ruled by the children of the elder Ampatuan.

While the people’s outrage over the massacre is understandable and essential, we cannot ignore the fact that over a thousand victims have been extra-judicially executed and disappeared under the Arroyo administration. This long list of victims includes human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, women, farmers and trade union workers. Not one has been punished for these crimes. One would think what would an additional 50 more victims do but only to embolden those who are responsible for these killings to kill more.

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines described the Maguindano massacre as “not a war between warlords but mass murder of innocents. It was not an outburst of uncontrollable anger – it was premeditated.”

This sentiment is only partly correct. Maguindanao is torn between two warring political clans, the powerful Ampatuans and the nascent Mangudadatus.

The Ampatuans represent feudal politics and they came to power when Datu Zaldy Ampatuan was elected governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Descendants of Moro datus, the Ampatuans were given the opportunity to lead and unify Bangsamoro as opposed to former professional and revolutionary leaders of the Moro secessionist movement who had no claims to the datu class. It was the chance for the Moro nobility to prove their worth.

Zaldy Ampatuan’s father, Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., is a senior member of the Moro nobility. The older Ampatuan was expected to ensure his son’s success and acceptance by traditional leaders, who themselves or whose children hold executive positions in local government posts.

The Ampatuans virtually control Maguindanao. Andal Jr. is mayor of Datu Unsay town; another brother, Anwar, is mayor of Maguindanao’s capital town of Shariff Aguak, a position previously held by Zaldy. Zaldy’s uncle (a cousin of Andal Sr.) is mayor of Mamasapano, while Zaldy’s cousin, Saudi Jr., is mayor of Datu Saudi Ampatuan town. Other cousins who are mayors in Maguindanao are Jacob Ampatuan of Rajah Buayan and Akmad Sangki of Datu Sangki town.

On the other side is the Mangudadatu family, represented by Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician contesting the governorship of Maguindanao. It was rumoured that Andal Jr. was being groomed by the elder Ampatuan to succeed him as governor of Maguindanao.

What this massacre proves is that violence is a regular component of local politics. It is not surprising that political dynasties, maintained by guns, goons and gold would not hesitate to kill their opponents in order to remain in power. The assassination of former Antique governor Evelio Javier in 1986 clearly reminds us of gangland politics. Arturo Pacificador, a Marcos crony and assistant majority leader in the National Assembly, who had operated as a warlord in Antique was the prime suspect. Pacificador’s son, Arturo Jr. was fingered as Javier’s killer but was never prosecuted and was able to travel to Canada where he would fight off efforts by the Philippine government to extradite him.

Abra Representative Luis “Chito” Bersamin Jr. was killed in broad daylight in front of Mount Carmel Church in Quezon City in December 2006, five months before the May 2007 elections. Former Abra governor, Vicente Isidro Valera, a political rival of the Bersamins, is the main suspect in the killing.

Only the Oro Este massacre in Ilocos Sur in 1970 would perhaps come close in comparison with the Ampatuan massacre in terms of brutality and brazenness. In the Oro Este massacre, the private army of the Crisologo clan led by Bingbong Crisologo burned a whole village for being supporters of the Singson clan.

For as long as big landowners or nobility clans like the Ampatuans are allowed to keep their private armies and use the local police to protect their interests, violence will always be part and parcel of Philippine local politics. The Ampatuan massacre is naturally a premeditated act, for no such magnitude of brutality and the sheer number of victims can occur without prior planning.

An effective prosecution of those responsible for the Maguindanao massacre is not enough, according to two United Nations’ experts, Philip Alston and Frank La Rue, who have previously investigated extra-judicial killings and violations of human rights in the Philippines. They have suggested that in order to assure the future of democracy in the Philippines, elite-family dominated manipulation of the political processes must be eliminated.

The two UN experts added that the Philippine government needs to establish a high-level task force, with broad political support, to identify the measures necessary to prevent violence before and during elections. They expressed fears that the massacre in Maguindanao may sound the death knell for many political activists.

According to the UN experts, the challenge is to go beyond the criminal law response and to take measures designed to protect the media, freedom of expression, and to prevent election-related violence. “The Maguindanao killings are a tragedy of the first order,” the experts said.

Political violence, as proven in many parts of the world where there are conflicts in recent decades, only retards economic development because it destroys human lives and economic assets and penalizes the accumulation of capital and wealth creation. As a result, problems of underdevelopment, poverty, inequality and social exclusion along with political institutions that have failed at conflict management breed more political violence.

The Maguindanao massacre should not be narrowly construed as a mere breakdown in political or civil order. Underneath these killings are far more pervasive problems which will continue to beget more political violence if not properly addressed. Policies to reduce political violence call for institutional reforms, improved democracies, and the elimination or reduction of poverty and inequality.

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