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 Arnel Paciano Casanova

MANILA, 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 politics.

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 Tuesday.

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 activities.

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.