Philippines massacre trial targets Ampatuan clan
As a trial in Manila focuses on the Ampatuan clan, accused of a politically-motivated massacre last November, they remain powerful on their home turf.
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The events surrounding the massacre underscore the reach of Andal Sr., a grade-school dropout and staunch ally of Arroyo's, who has publicly disowned Andal Sr. since the killings. The alleged plotters included the provincial police chief. Over 1,000 police have since been transferred while several accused of taking part are in detention. Two senior military officers were also moved to other areas after it emerged that they had refused to escort the convoy.Skip to next paragraph
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The Philippine election commission, known as Comelec, has come under national scrutiny. Three weeks before the massacre, Comelec switched the location for filing candidacy papers to Shariff Aguak, forcing the Mangadadatus to enter their rival’s stronghold and setting up a fatal confrontation.
That decision was taken by Comelec in Manila and shows that the writ of the Ampatuans runs all the way to the top, says Elisio Mercado, a Catholic priest who runs the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in Cotabato City here on Mindanao. Like many here, he singles out the clan’s ability to deliver votes to Arroyo, particularly in a close 2004 race that was dogged by allegations of vote-rigging.
“It’s the first time that Malacanang is beholden to a warlord. Normally it’s the other way around,” says Father Mercado, referring to the presidential palace in Manila.
Arroyo also expanded the number of gunmen assigned to elected officials in insurgent-plagued parts of Mindanao. The Ampatuans cited the threat of incursions by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has bases here, as justification for their large private army.
In fact, say security officials and local traders, the Ampatuan militia was used to spread fear and exact revenge on anyone who crossed them. The Philippine Human Rights Commission is investigating reports of multiple past killings. The new police chief says his files reveal no such cases.
This reign of terror was felt keenly in this gritty town, named for an ancestor of the Ampatuans, says a security official. “No robbery. No petty crime. They were afraid,” he says.
Civil society groups have asked that May’s election, in which Andal Sr. is a vice-governor candidate, be held early so that more poll observers and security officials can monitor the voting. That would require legislation in Congress, which breaks up next month ahead of the elections.
The massacre has raised concerns over governance in Muslim areas of Mindanao, which lag far behind other Philippine regions on development indicators. Some Filipino politicians have held up the Ampatuans as an example of why Manila should not devolve more power to these areas.
Amina Rasul, who runs the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, an advocacy group in Manila, says that warlords like the Ampatuans emerged from decades of conflict and bouts of military rule. She says national leaders share the blame for nurturing local warlords in return for votes.
“It’s reversible. We need to think how to reverse it before it becomes really impossible,” she says.