Philippines politics has often been marred by bloodshed. From the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino on the tarmac of the Manila airport by agents of the country's then dictator Ferdinand Marcos to the hundreds of lesser known regional candidates and their supporters murdered in the provinces over the years, the gun has frequently been an ingredient of Philippines politics.
But the kidnapping and murders of 35 supporters (according to the Philippines Inquirer) of a candidate for governor in the southern province of Maguindanao on Monday has shocked even jaded Filipinos. The kidnapping occurred as supporters of wealthy businessman Ishmael Mangudadatu of Buluan town were traveling to the provincial capital accompanied by a number of local journalists. They planned to file papers for Mr. Mangudadatu's run for governor of Maguindanao province on the island of Mindanao.
Mr. Mangudadatu was not in the convoy but his wife Genalyn was murdered, along with about nine journalists and assorted supporters. Buluan town Mayor Ebrahim Mangudadatu, Ishmael's brother, blamed the assault on Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan, who recently stepped down at the end of his third term in charge of the restive region. Mr. Ampatuan, a hereditary clan leader whose family is the most powerful in the area, had always been elected unopposed in the past. His son Andal Jr. is expected to run for his father's slot.
"Datu" is a Malay-derived honorific that usually refers to hereditary princes or chiefs. The mostly-Muslim population of the Southern Philippines has strong Malay and Indonesian cultural influence.
Ebrahim Mangudadatu alleged that Andal Jr. led the assault, according to the Philippines Inquirer. “This is a gruesome massacre of civilians unequaled in recent history,” Jesus Dureza, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's adviser for Mindanao, said in a statement. "I strongly recommend that a state of emergency be imposed in the area and everyone be disarmed. Anything less would not work."
Many of the victims from the convoy were women, apparently sent in the mistaken hope that their presence would deter any possible attack. The Manila Times reported that a number of the victims were beheaded and buried in a mass grave. The attack began as the convoy moved through the town of Ampatuan, the clan's local stronghold. President Arroyo ordered the Philippines National Police and the military to pursue the perpetrators.
Whether that will really happen is an open question, however. Andal Ampatuan has been a local power-broker for decades, and has reliably delivered massive local majorities for President Arroyo in her political campaigns. In the murky politics of The Philippines, wealthy families have almost feudal control over poorer voters in their districts, nowhere more so than in Maguindanao, which has been a hotbed of Muslim and Marxist insurgency against the Catholic-dominated central government for generations.
Such leaders can make or break presidential campaigns, though the Mangudadatu family are almost as powerful as the Ampatuans and are likewise Arroyo supporters.
But the shock of a massacre this large may prod the government to overturn the long-standing tradition of impunity for political violence. Arroyo's failure to rein in extra-judicial killings by politicians, the military, and the police have brought her government in for criticism in recent years from the European Union and United Nations and, to a lesser extent, from the US.
A small detachment of US special forces soldiers have been deployed to the city of Zamboanga on Mindanao and have been active in training as well as search and destroy missions against Abu Sayyaf rebels in the area since 2002. The Abu Sayyaf, which describes itself as an Islamist separatist group but is largely involved in kidnap for ransom activities and extortion in the area, has been blamed for a number of terrorist attacks inside The Philippines. Abu Sayyaf leaders at one time had contact with Al Qaeda.
Three years ago, US-backed President Arroyo, under pressure to do something about political intimidation and assassination in the country, created Task Force Usig to investigate and prosecute political murders. The task force has since documented over 140 political murders but secured less than a dozen convictions.
Another Arroyo effort on the issue, the so-called Melo Commission of 2007, found strong evidence of military and political involvement in 111 murders of political activists and journalists in the last decade. The Melo report – which Arroyo's government originally tried to suppress – found that "it is undisputed that the killings ... did not occur during military engagements or firefights. These were assassination or ambush-type killings ... with the assailants escaping with impunity.
"It is also undisputed that the PNP has not made much headway in solving these killings. Out of the 111 killings of activists acknowledged by the PNP, only 37 had been forwarded to the proper prosecutor’s office for preliminary investigation or filed in court. "
(This story was edited after publication to clarify that Ishmael Mangudadatu was not in the convoy that was attacked.)