POSITION PAPER OF THE WRITERSCONNECT INTERNATIONAL (WCII), PHILIPPINES
“In Maguindanao, the word of the Ampatuans was the law. It was either you said “yes” to them, or you got yourself killed for daring to say “no.” – Suwaib Upahm, Ampatuan militia member, March 19, 2010.
“Warlordism exists because it has a blessing from the top.” – Philippine Academic, Mindanao State University, General Santos City, February 14, 2010.
The Account of the National Tragedy
On November 23, 2009, around 200 gunmen killed 58 people including 30 media workers and six passersby in a secluded place near the town of the Ampatuans. The primary suspects are the Ampatuans, a ruling family in the Southern Philippines, Mindanao.
The people who were killed are part of the convoy carrying family members and supporters of the Vice Mayor who went to file the certificate of candidacy of Esmael Mangudadatu for Maguindanao gubernatorial race.
Witnesses testified that Andal Ampatuan, Jr. led his clan’s private army in stopping the convoy of vehicles that belonged to the rival victims and beat them before they were brutally killed. The attackers ignored the appeal for mercy from the victims and instead they were savagely attacked and gunned down.
The murder victims included the wife of Mangudadatu, his two sisters, media workers (prominent of which are the four media personnel from UNTV 37), lawyers, aides and those who were mistakenly part of the convoy. It was alleged that the murders were premeditated by the Ampatuans to prevent the Mangudadatus from running in the elections for fear of being defeated.
One can imagine the looks, not only on the victim’s family’s faces, seeing the horrible things that happened to their loved ones. As dead bodies were being excavated from their unwanted pits, did every Filipino imagine what could be in the minds of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at that time, and his trusted officials in the military?
As bodies stank and eyes were filled with tears, this tragedy seems too absurd to be true. It teaches everyone a lesson: not to take for granted even the minor abuses of those in power, especially the local government warlords in relation to their national leaders.
Putting off until tomorrow a decision that needs to be done today is the biggest mistake that has been done by the previous administration. This is especially important when it refers to escaping what could be described as “the ignorance and foolishness of those in power to battle against those abusive, manipulative, and evil individuals.”
How did a single clan grow its wealth while the area it controls became poorer?
Maguindanao, where the Ampatuans ruled, remained one among the top five poorest provinces in the country despite the billions poured into it by the Arroyo administration.
Data revealed by the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Maguindanao’s population of 1.27 million in the year 2002 would have had to make do only with local tax collection that was recorded at only P555,864 which even declined to P204,292 in 2008.
However, it has the largest number of voters, which was considered the key to political control of the region. This is the reason why it is the object of pampering from the national government according to political analysts.
The Arroyo government has been greatly generous to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) apart from the billions it gives to Maguindanao.
The sad truth of it was revealed in a Commission on Audit (COA) report which indicated that few residents of ARMM and especially Maguindanao ever benefited from the public monies.
COA said, of the P1.087-billion total cash inflow in 2008, some P354.6 million went to “suppliers/creditors” and P157.03 million to “employees”. The provincial government listed also an unspecified “other cash outflow” amounting to P455.56 million or nearly half of its total cash inflow for the year.
The irony of it is that for all the billions of money being poured into the ARMM government, they are still in default of paying contributions to the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) for the benefit of its employees.
In the last years, the Ampatuans and their political surrogates assumed nearly total control of public monies in all levels of the government from regional down to the barangay levels. Juicy posts were made accessible only to the most trusted kins.
Was the government really in control?
While the previous government kept saying, “We’re in control of the situation in Mindanao,” still, for just one day, the nightmare happened.
This is a manifestation of the truth that the government is not really in control but is being controlled by just a few of these heartless individuals.
For over two decades already, a ruling family in the southern Philippines, Mindanao, committed killings and other abuses with the support of the government security forces and officials, as per report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
It referred to the Ampatuans who ruled Maguindanao province confident of the support of no less than the then President of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, who was reported to have used the clan for her victory and its private armies as a proxy force to help contain Muslim rebels.
James Ross, the legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch said, “The Maguindanao massacre was not an aberration, but the foreseeable consequence of unchecked killings and other serious abuses.”
As reported in the Relief Web, the HRW also revealed that the police and the military under the command of high authorities in the government are the ones providing the Ampatuan family with manpower, weaponry and full protection from prosecution.
Members of their private armies are mostly members also of the police, military (state-sanctioned paramilitary forces, Civilian Volunteer Organizations, and the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs). This was likewise noted from the reports of the HRW.
“Families like the Ampatuans have used officially-sanctioned paramilitaries as private armies to spread terror and maintain power,” Ross said. “The government needs to stop being part of the problem and instead disband the militias and hold abusers to account.”
Human Rights Watch said that the police, the Justice Department, and other government agencies have long failed to investigate crimes linked to the Ampatuans. As a result, family members have acted as if they were above the law and without fear of being held accountable.
In a report in the Relief Web, a man who witnessed the killing of two of his relatives said, “We were afraid to file criminal complaints because during that time all government agencies were under the Ampatuan’s control. No one dared to file a case as people look at Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. as the little president.”
“You can’t be installed as regional director of police if you don’t go along with the policies of the Ampatuan government. A police officer has to give at least 50 weapons to the Ampatuans in order to become a regional director,” said a police officer who was stationed in Maguindanao.
How would it be in the present administration?
A year after the tragic killing of 58 people, majority of whom are from the media, still, the government failed to solve the problem of “private armies”.
The Aquino government has not yet shown a clear direction of curtailing abusive militia forces and dismantling private armies.
Following the massacre and the attention it received within the Philippines and abroad, the government arrested Ampatuan family members implicated in the killings, including former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., and then-local mayor Andal Ampatuan, Jr., the primary suspect. However, the other accused continue to roam freely in the province.
The Aquino administration assured the media to do its best to protect and respect the rights of the members no matter how hard-hitting their criticisms maybe. The question now, is how and when?
The Human Rights Watch through an unidentified government source reported that when the authorities arrested Ampatuan, Jr. following the massacre, he asked, “Which hotel will I be billeted in?” The government has charged 195 people for the killings, including 19 currently on trial, but 115 of them remain at large.
Justice for the Victims Remains Elusive
Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera, 54, one of the lead prosecutors in the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines recently died of a heart attack. Reports revealed that nineteen of the 196 suspects in the crime including Andal Amaptuan Jr, 16 police officers and two other private militia members are currently on trial.
The other 47 suspects are still in custody awaiting arraignment but about another 130 suspects consisting of police officers and members of the Ampatuan’s militia men are still at large.
Also, several witnesses were anxious of their security after two respondents in the killing of Jessie, one of the first witnesses of the prosecution, were released on the basis of mere technicality.
According to Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur, “the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the government of the Philippines should be reformed and fully implemented.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) should review the Witness Protection Program and to separate it from the National Prosecution Service in order to ensure full protection and cooperation among witnesses.
It is quite disturbing too that as per investigation of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), it showed a pattern where killers of journalists in the Philippines were allowed to go free time and again.
The Strength Needed: The Government and the People
“The Philippine government could have turned the national tragedy of the Maguindanao massacre into a campaign to eliminate private armies and bring all those responsible for their abuses to justice,” Ross said. “The Philippine people – and the country’s reputation – will continue to suffer so long as powerful ruling families are calling the shots.”
Human Rights Watch called on the recently elected president, Benigno Aquino III, to fulfill his campaign promises of justice for victims of the Maguindanao massacre and other rights abuses by directing the National Bureau of Investigation to give priority to investigating the alleged abuses of the Ampatuans and their militia.
Aquino should carry out his pledge to abolish private armies by banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the Philippines. And he should act to eliminate the spread of military weaponry to armed groups outside the professional national security forces.
An international media watchdog group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called for a “broad nationwide strategy” to prosecute the killers.
“President Benigno Aquino and his administration must follow through on commitments to ensure justice in the Maguindanao killings,” the CPJ said in a special report by senior Southeast Asian representative Shawn Crispin as posted on the CPJ website.
Exposure to international media gives high hopes that justice will be attained and the cycle of impunity may be ended.
Ms. Teresita Q. Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said during the 6th Mindanao Media Summit in Davao City, “the Philippines has become one the ‘most dangerous assignments’ for media practitioners, together with Iran and Iraq, and truly, most serious efforts must be waged to assure you of the atmosphere of openness and safety. Needless to say, we need to continue to have a free, independent, and objective media to protect the peace.”
Suggested Solutions and Recommendations
The following are some selected recommendations of Writersconnect International as plan of action by everyone concerned:
Andal Ampatuan, Sr. and other suspects be arraigned and tried in court along with other accused without special treatment;
- Take immediate action to disarm and disband all militias, including state-sanctioned paramilitary forces in Maguindanao and throughout the country;
- Form broad, nationwide strategy to aggressively prosecute the killers of journalists and create rapid response teams composed of forensic and legal experts to handle all major crimes, including the murders of journalists;
- Investigate all acts of violence against witnesses and take assertive and timely enforcement action in response to reports of intimidation and bribery of witnesses and victim’s families;
- The court or sala that handles the case to continually conduct hearings everyday until the Maguindanao massacre is fully disposed of or finished. It should not handle any other case before this case has finally arrived at a decision;
- Pursue of justice in other fora like the streets and other venues;
- Hold public trial or trial with media coverage;
- Demand full coordination and cooperation among law enforcement agencies and order that all evidence collected by police be turned over to prosecutors immediately;
- Ensure adequate funding for the DOJ witness protection program and devote sufficient funding for DNA forensic testing and other technology driven investigation techniques;
- Review court rules that have been exploited by defense attorneys to delay proceedings and revise rules allowing attorneys to file duplicative, harassing, and irrelevant motions;
- Review and pursue policies to address impunity and examine the experiences of other countries that have addressed the issue;
- Institute tougher controls on local government procurement of weapons, and prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, regardless of position or rank;
- Give immediate compensation or necessary assistance to the heirs of the victims, enough to extinguish the impact of the tragedy
Let us join forces and by God’s help and mercy, we may attain justice!
- By U.S. News Agency / Asian;
- The 96-page report, ‘They Own the People’: The Ampatuans, State-Backed Militias, and Killings in the Southern Philippines;
- Ferdinand Fabella, Arraign Ampatuan patriarch, others now
- Ina Reformina and Jorge Cariño, ABS-CBN News
- November 9, 2010 by durianpost;