Civilians massacred by government-backed warlords. Filipinos protest martial law declaration, demand independent investigation.
J.D. Benjamin – BASICS #17 (Jan/Feb 2010)
Even by the blood-soaked standards of Philippine politics, the November 23 massacre in Ampatuan municipality, Maguindanao province, was shocking. At least 57 people, all unarmed civilians, were killed in a broad daylight attack on a convoy of journalists, human rights lawyers, motorists who happened to be passing by at the time, and the female relatives of Esmael Mangudadatu, a politician intent on running in the local provincial elections.
The victims were killed at close range with high-powered rifles or hacked to death. Twenty-four of the victims were women, some of whom were raped and mutilated. Twenty-nine were journalists and two were human rights lawyers. At least 6 of the dead were decapitated. Reporters Without Borders described the killings as the worst loss of life in the history of journalism.
Pictured: relatives of victims hurl red paint at a banner depicting Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Andal Ampatuan Jr., and other notorious human rights abuses at a protest in Manila.
The convoy was en-route to file registration papers for the May 2010 elections when they were abducted and murdered by over 100 gunmen. Witnesses identified the killers as members of a private army of the Ampatuan clan, a powerful family clique of feudal-fascist warlords. The clan includes the governors of Maguindanao and the neighbouring Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a cabinet undersecretary, congressmen, and several town mayors.
Town mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. was identified as the leader of the massacre, while Andal Ampatuan Sr., the governor whose seat Mangudadatu was contesting, is thought to be the mastermind behind the operation. A backhoe found at the scene that had been used to dig a mass grave and partially bury the victims was property of the provincial government and embossed with Ampatuan Sr.’s name.
The Ampatuans are close allies of current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The clan was implicated in the fraudulent elections of 2004 and 2007 that kept Arroyo in power and helped organize massive vote buying and ballot stealing. Their role in the frauds was so brazen that in the 2004 election, the seat of Maguindanao delivered not a single vote to the more popular opposition candidate.
In return for their loyalty, the Ampatuans were encouraged to set themselves up as local tyrants. Officials turned a blind eye as the warlords engaged in widespread corruption, drug dealing and gun running. Their private army was officially designated as a government-authorized paramilitary force, subsidized by public funds, armed to the teeth with government weapons, and operated as auxiliary units to the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Army. The warlord forces were used in “counter-insurgency” operations that targeted revolutionary guerrillas and Muslim separatist forces in the region, as well as to stifle legal dissent and intimidate the people.
Given these close ties, there is widespread cynicism that the perpetrators of the massacre will be brought to justice. While Ampatuan Jr. and others have been charged with murder and several of his relatives and allies have been charged with rebellion, many are concerned that their prosecution will result in their eventual release and acquittal. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines and the International Federation of Journalists has reported that “There are fears that the crime scene was compromised, that forensic evidence was contaminated and the physical examination of the area was cut short due to security concerns and resourcing issues.”
The Arroyo regime further undermined the murder charges by declaring martial law in the region on December 5. While the government claimed the move was necessary to apprehend the perpetrators and lifted martial law a week later, the damage was already done. In an interview with ABS-CBN’s morning show “Umagang Kay Ganda”, Harry Roque, a lawyer for some of the victims, pointed out that “our case has been weakened because a lot of the evidence gathered by authorities was taken without warrants, which we can no longer use. It’s what we call the fruit of the poisoned tree. If it is illegally obtained, we cannot use it in court. The case is weakened because martial law only states that you can do warrantless arrests for the crime of rebellion.”
The charges for rebellion are also weak, since under Philippine law, rebellion is an armed uprising against the government. Given the facts of the case, this will be difficult to prove. As opposition member and Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares pointed out, “Who would believe that they are rebels when the Ampatuans are actually allies of Arroyo? They know that rebellion charges are difficult to prove. It is also the same reason why most political prisoners are charged with common crimes, not rebellion.” Even if the charges are not thrown out of court, convictions for rebellion allow for an application for amnesty, so the killers could be set free with the stroke of a pen.
In response, peoples’ organizations around the world are calling for a full and independent investigation into the massacre. In an interview with BASICS, Marco Luciano of Migrante International said, “The Maguindanao massacre is a microcosm of the whole Philippine society. When we say the country is ruled by landlords and supported by the state, this is what that means. The people are seeking not only justice for victims of the massacre, but also to hold the government accountable.” People in Canada should also demand that their government be accountable for the support they have given the Arroyo regime and end all joint training programs with the Philippine Army and Police.