Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is coming under fire for her weekend declaration of martial law in the southern province of Maguindanao, where political allies of hers are linked to a massacre of 57 people last month.
Her government's investigation into the killings is a litmus test for whether Ms. Arroyo will tackle the country's culture of impunity for political killings, especially in a case that involves a close ally, the powerful Ampatuan clan.
Since the Nov. 23 massacre the government has named 10 Ampatuans as suspects in the case and dispatched thousands of troops to Maguindanao. Police there say they were attacked by dozens of gunmen belonging to the family's militia late Sunday.
But the declaration of martial law – the first in the country since 1972 – was criticized both as an overreaction and as a ploy to preserve Arroyo's political standing. Critics question whether a rebellion is actually occurring.
"I think the decision to declare martial law was done to give Ms. Arroyo some breathing space … a smokescreen until she can figure out where to go from here," says Pete Troilo, director of the Manila-based political risk consultancy, Pacific Strategies and Assessments. "It is well known the Ampatuans helped secure her election win in 2004 and helped her party win during the mid-term elections. So she knows they hold some valuable cards."
Ampatuans: powerful, well-armed
The Ampatuan clan is one of the most powerful on restive Mindanao island. The family has ruled impoverished Maguindanao since 2001 with brute force and intimidation, helped by its militia armed by the Philippine government. The government has relied on such militias to help fight Muslim secessionists on the island.
Andal Ampatuan Jr., a local mayor and son of the provincial governor, has been charged with 25 counts of murder in relation to the November massacre. He allegedly tried to prevent a political rival's convoy of supporters from registering their candidate for next year's elections for provincial governor.
Arroyo justified the imposition of martial law in a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate, which may convene Tuesday to debate the decision. "Lawless elements have taken up arms and committed public uprising against the duly constituted government and against the people of Maguindanao," Arroyo said.
Security forces in Maguindanao have seized massive caches of weapons and ammunition, and said they are pursuing thousands of the Ampatuans' militiamen. No casualties on either side occurred in Sunday's skirmish, government officials said.
A group of human rights lawyers, arguing that the clashes there do not qualify as a rebellion, asked the Supreme Court on Monday to end the martial law.
Martial law as smokescreen?
Even if the Ampatuans currently detained are charged with rebellion, says Mr. Troilo, "it doesn't matter and is not a serious charge in this country."
Two former military men who led rebellions now sit in the Senate, and one of them has been awaiting trial for years, he points out. Another mutiny leader still waiting trial is running for the Senate next year.
One analyst, who did not want to be named, believes the government is trying to distract from the legal process. "I think the government is using the threat of a rebellion to hide an even bigger issue here," he says. "Martial law has overshadowed the massacre and is now being focused on rebellion which is a non issue in this case… It doesn't exist."
Human rights lawyer Jejomar Binay, believes the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao could be a ruse to allow authorities to look for and eliminate evidence of election fraud during the 2004 presidential election.
"There have been reports that the Ampatuans have threatened to make the Arroyo administration pay by telling all they know about the massive cheating in the province during the 2004 presidential elections," he says, referring to reports widely circulated in local media. "If such reports are true, then this reduces the martial law proclamation into a hunt for evidence of election fraud," he added.
"It is a supposedly a 'smiling martial law,' without the restrictions that are associated with martial law," but "those of us who lived through, suffered, and fought during the martial law years can attest that there is no such thing as smiling martial law," he says.