The massacre of fifty people, including almost 30 journalists, at the end of November continues to cause problems here in the Philippines.

They “know” who ordered the murders, and even have witnesses: the powerful Ampatuans. Father runs Maguindanao province, and son number one runs the neighboring province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The aim was to get son number two to win the election to take his father’s place. The massacre was aimed at another clan leader, who planned to run against him. That leader sent his wife, along with a lot of human rights lawyers and journalists, to register him as a candidate instead, so they were the ones killed by unknown people.

Essentially the way the government ran that area of Mindanao was to help one clan get power, and then develop local self defense militias to keep the “insurgents” down.

From StrategyPage:

The clans have always been important in the south, and they have always been armed. The national government maintains control in this volatile environment by backing the most powerful clan in each province.

But it’s about more than politics. Politicians here are suspected of taking bribes, kickbacks, and diverting money. The rumor is tha the going rate of bribery is 20 percent, but of course it is rare to actually discover a crooked politicians, so maybe it is only rumors.

But the clan structure of the Philippines sees the great families as those who deserve to run things; your connection with them is how you get things done.

Here in the north, clan power is weakening, but in Muslim parts of Mindanao, the massacre could literally lead to a clan war. To make it worse, the local militias, which are supposed only to prevent Muslim insurgents from taking over and terrorizing people, have close ties to the governor. The rumors are that sonny boy, trying to stop his rival, called out some of the militia, dug a hole, and hijacked the convoy going to register his opponent. When they found his wife and some journalists instead, the murders occurred.

Bad move, since killing women is forbidden in Islam, and the massacre of 27 press representatives mean that powerful NGO’s will keep an eye on what’s going on.

Enter the Filipine military.

Right now, the Amputuans are claiming innocence, and even went to court to stop the military from keeping them isolated at home.

Guns were confiscated from militia members, but most of them collected were old weapons. Later, a huge stash was found buried near one of the Ampatuan’s homes, but without proof, that would not allow arrest of the suspects.

Enter President Arroyo. The Ampatuans are her allies (in her party) and there are rumors that they “helped” her win the presidential elections in the past. But a clan war could result in thousands of deaths, with the military and local farmers in the middle.

So  evidence is slowly being collected, suspects are slowly being arrested, and the military is trying their best to keep things quiet. Knowing that evidence takes time, and to make sure that the bad guys can be picked up before they flee, the President decided to declare martial law, which allows the government to pick up suspects and keep them without formal charges. The rationale for the declaration was the huge stash of arms found near or inside buildings owned by the suspects.

Declaring martial law, however, might be a mistake.

At this point you have to realize that many Filipinos are passionate about their freedom, and that the rule of law be followed. They remember a lot of the abuses that occurred under Marcos who declared “martial law” against the communist insurgents but used it against his political enemies.

The usual human rights and opposition leaders are up in arms (no surprise there) but even the Manila Bulletin (a pro administration paper) and ex President Ramos are questioning if the move was legal.

Congress has to okay the move to make it legal, and they are expected to do so.

Investigating the massacre of civilians should of course be a straightforward operation. The military is there to keep the peace, and so far even the local insurgents (MILF) are so far staying out of it. But local people are starting to flee, worrying that fighting between the heavily armed local militias and the military will erupt.

It is not easy to disarm private armies, but the massacre shows that it is necessary to do so.

StrategyPage observes:

The south has always been the “wild west” and the recent massacre is a bloody reminder why… The slaughter of 27 journalists is bringing the mass media in (literally) with a vengeance. Dark secrets will be revealed, desperate, and dangerous, men will be cornered. Suddenly, there will be a perception that Islamic radicalism is not the biggest danger in the south.

Since the suspected perpetrators until last week belonged to the President’s party  there are a lot of questions that will be asked in the near future, and it has ramifications beyond the criminal case. It could affect the peace talks with the MILF, the war against the more radical elements in the insurgency, and next year’s presidential election.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

If I have made errors, they are my own and you are welcome to correct me.

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