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Philippines massacre: State of emergency declared, but will Arroyo pursue justice?

The Philippines massacre of 46 people on Monday prompts President Gloria Arroyo to declare a state of emergency in the affected province. Is she ready to take on her country's culture of political violence?

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2009

On Tuesday in Manila, protesters hold signs condemning the killing of at least 40 political supporters and journalists in the southern Philippines.

Bullit Marquez/AP

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Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency for parts of the southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday, after a political massacre there left at least 46 people dead.

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But her strong response came amid widespread questions over whether action will be put to her words. The murders are alleged to have been arranged by one of her political allies and the Philippines has a long-standing culture of impunity for political violence.

"The government definitely has the numbers but not the political will," says Vilnor Papa, Philippine campaign manager of Amnesty International. "We have political killings. We have summary executions. This is a culture of impunity. You have seen how people from the military have gotten away with murder."

But while political murders are common in the Philippines, this was an extraordinary outrage – a brazen daylight attack in front of witnesses and with apparently no threat from police. At least a dozen of the victims were local journalists.

The killers were alleged, according to eyewitness reports broadcast on Philippine radio and television stations, to be under orders from Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of a town that bears his family name. The victims were stopped in Ampatuan, herded several miles away, and shot.

The victims had been on their way to enter the name of Ismael Mangudadatu, the vice mayor of another town, as a candidate for governor. Mr. Ampatuan is vying to succeed his father, Andal Sr., as governor of the province of Maguindanao. Mr. Mangudadatu was not among the victims.

The Ampatuan family are local warlords accustomed to winning elections, in part thanks to their close relationship with Arroyo and the military. The family helped her win the vast majority of votes in the province in the 2004 presidential election. Arroyo won 100 percent of the votes in some towns in the province and at some polling stations the number of votes for Arroyo exceeded the number of registered voters.

Political warfare

On a broader level, the massacre reflected the constant struggles among factions and families. In a region that was barely subdued by the Spanish and then the Americans, warlordism has replaced feudalism, with different groups fighting for political perks and payoffs.

Ampatuan's gubernatorial rival Mangudadatu is the doyen of another powerful local family and had refused to stand down amid reported threats against his life. Thinking gunmen would be reluctant to shoot women and journalists, he sent them in a convoy to register his candidacy. His wife and two sisters were among the dead.