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Warlord’s Violence Threatens Philippine Democracy

Sympathizers light candles for those who died during a politically motivated massacre on November 25, 2009 in Maguindanao Province, Philippines. (Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images)
by Jennifer Mattson
24 November 2009

By Arnel Paciano Casanova

PHILIPPINES, November 24, 2009 - The death toll in Monday’s election
violence has doubled, with authorities
saying at least 46 people are dead in Maguindanao province, located in the southern
island of Mindanao, Philippines.The
government declared a state of emergency in two southern provinces on Tuesday. Military and police continue to
search for the missing.

In the context of
the deaths and violence in the Philippines, this does not seem to be out of the
ordinary.But the identities of
the victims, the way they died, and the savagery and impunity of the
perpetrators make this massacre unprecedented in the history of Philippine

This brutality provides a possible bloody scenario for next year’s
elections. With the Arroyo administration
trying to hold on to power amid increasing distrust by a majority of Filipinos,
a state of emergency due to the failure of elections could be declared.  With the military accused of abetting
electoral fraud in the 2004 presidential elections and the police serving as
security escorts for politicians, the possibility of clean, honest and peaceful
elections in 2010 seems less likely.

Half the original 22 victims in Maguindanao are women, who in similar
past situations were traditionally spared. News reports also indicate the 13 abducted journalists are most
likely dead. If true, it would be the largest number of journalists killed in
pre-election related violence in the Philippines. Most of the victims were raped, mutilated and beheaded.

The victims were attacked on their way to file the certificate of
candidacy of Buluan Vice-Mayor Ishamel Mangudadatu in the Commission on
Elections. Mangudadatu plans to
run against the son of former Governor Andal Ampatuan.

Before her death, the Vice-Mayor’s wife, Genalyn, called her husband to
say that they were blocked by the armed group of Ampatuans.  Her headless body was recovered two
kilometers from where she was taken.

The prospects for democracy in the Philippines is decreasing while
dictatorship and “warlordism” seem to be on rise. This kind of violence is common in Iraq, Afghanistan and
Darfur where there has been complete breakdown in the rule of law. But for the Philippines, a supposedly thriving
democracy, this violence signals a dangerous erosion of democratic order which
could lead to anarchy, dynastic dictatorship, or a military junta.

Given the Ampatuan’s close relationship with President Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo’s administration,
Filipinos are watching how she will react. “No effort will be spared”
to bring the perpetrators to justice, Arroyo said in a cabinet meeting on

It is important to note that Maguindanao previously occupied the center
stage in the 2004 elections, with accusations of fraud. The Ampatuan’s hold on power was solid
in Maguindanao and pivotal in the administration’s victory. In the 2007 elections, school teacher Musa
Dimasidsing, an election fraud whistle blower was murdered. His case remains unresolved.

One of the big questions is: how could such a large group of armed men
roam freely and conduct checkpoints without being confronted by the military or
police. In fact, some reports say
that the local police were part of the Ampatuan group that blocked the convoy
of victims.

The Philippine military has been widely criticized for its use of
militias or “civilian volunteer organizations” to augment their forces. These CVOs usually end up serving as
the private army of local politicians.

Since the Philippine military does not have the budget to maintain these
CVOs, they rely on the local politicians to strengthen their armed capability
which could be used against the threat of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front
(MILF), other armed groups, or their political enemies. There are questions about how the
warlords in Maguindanao, the third poorest province in the Philippines, could
maintain such huge armed forces without having to resort to dubious economic

The question of warlords and CVOs could complicate the presence of the
American forces deployed in this region in Mindanao as part of the Visiting
Forces Agreement with the Philippines.
The American forces deal with these warlords and CVOs on a regular
basis.One of the Ampatuans, Gov.
Zaldy Ampatuan is the Governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao
where most US forces are deployed.

With the increasing involvement of these warlords in atrocities against
unarmed civilians, how American forces will now deal with them, and the power
structure that supports them, is a valid question that speaks to the US
commitment to democracy in this part of the world.

Arnel Paciano Casanova is
the Executive Director, Asia Society Philippines.