The election season here in the Philippines is known for it’s violence, but Monday’s massacre has far reaching implications for democracy in this country.

A powerful governor was planning for his son to follow him as governor. A local mayor decided to run against him, but received threats against his life. When he requested protection to go to register to run, it was not available, so he decided instead to send his wife and some family members. Since there was a worry that his personal body guards might be blamed  if there was an incident, instead several human rights lawyers and quite a few reporters went along, partly to report, but partly as witnesses if anything happened.

From the Philippine Inquirer:

Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. ran unopposed in the 2007 elections. Vice Mayor Mangudadatu claimed that he had received reports that the Ampatuans threatened to chop him into pieces once he filed his CoC….“Under our tradition, Muslim women are being respected. They should not be harmed just like innocent children and the elders,” Mangudadatu stressed.

What happened was so beyond the usual “political murders” that it threatens to disrupt the administration. The cars were stopped, and all in them were killed. Originally it was thought that it was a kidnapping, then a hit, but as more and more bodies were discovered, it became a massacre: the present count is 52 dead, including at least a dozen reporters, and some innocents in passing cars presumably to get rid of witnesses.

The press in this country are horrified, and to make things worse, there is the impression that the government is dragging their feet in investigating.

On Wednesday, police named Ampatuan Jr. as chief suspect. 

quotes the government as saying there won’t be any “quick arrests”.

“We have due process to be observed also, so let us allow the investigators on the ground to come up with [a case] through their investigation,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde replied

The left is up in arms about this: there are a lot of politicians who have “private armies”, but in Mindanao, there is an overlap between local self defense militias and the politicians.

And to make things more embarrassing for the Arroyo administration, those accused of being behind the massacre are known allies of the President and her party.

Representative Mariano claims:

“The still unresolved 2004 and 2007 electoral fraud explains the Arroyo administration’s lack of political will. The truth behind the past two elections in Maguindanao has, in effect, made Ms Arroyo a political hostage of the Ampatuans,” Mariano said.

The”extrajudicial killing” of reporters and left wing activists frequently makes the US news, but the toll is much higher if you add to that number all the political killings done during election season. Many of these murders are never prosecuted, or those involved use tactics to delay facing justice. How do they get away with murder? They know someone, who arranges the case to be dropped, or the evidence is lost, or the witnesses disappear (either fleeing or killed).

The links between the present government and the suspects in this case bodes ill for a quick resolution, but there is a big election next year, and hope that a change in administration may lead to reforms and the elimination of the corruption that many claim has gotten worse in the last eight years.

This massacre has more to do with the ability of politicians to skim money and get rich than it does to do with the unrest in the south and the various Muslim insurgencies.

Why do I say that?

Because our area of northern Luzon has similar political murders. Oh, they aren’t mass murders. They are isolated reports of drive by shootings of reporters, shoot outs between the bodyguards of politicians, and granades thrown at the houses of those who are counting the vote. Hardly a week goes by without another barangay captain or mayor being attacked or killed. Even those who count the vote (often local teachers) are threatened. It is hoped that the new computerized voting system will slow down some of the stuffing of the ballot box (at least until the locals find a geek to reprogram the machines.

It’s not really about political ideology: It’s about money.

Whoever wins can give out contracts, and can benefit from gifts from those grateful for getting contracts. This can enrich the large clans who often are related by blood or marriage with each other. Essentially, the Philippines is an oligarchy, run by extended families for the benefit of their extended families.

The political murders are only an extension of  politics by those who think they can get away with this method of eliminating political rivals.

The ability of powerful families to essentially run areas mean less opportunity for others. Unlike the US, where a poor person can start a business and get rich, or run for office, here it is very hard to break through the barriers if one doesn’t know someone or isn’t related to someone.

As a result, the best and brightest are leaving the country, and the poverty will continue.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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