The clan politics of ARMM

Ampatuans, web of kin
warp Maguindanao polls

First of Three Parts

DATU HOFFER, Maguindanao — This municipality is just a kilometer or so from the capitol, but it barely looks like a town. Bereft of any paved roads, it has a scattering of huts around hillsides. There is no town center, no business and commercial establishments, and the municipal hall sits alone on a hilltop — gleaming white cement and grey granite, obviously new, yet seemingly unused. There is no activity that one would associate with the governance of any regular municipality.

That’s because as far as the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) is concerned, Datu Hoffer is one of many newly minted towns of Maguindanao in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that should not even be called a town.

Datu Hoffer was created by the ARMM Regional Legislative Assembly in 2009 by virtue of Muslim Mindanao Act 220, with a population of 22,000. But DBM has refused to release any internal revenue allotment (IRA) for Datu Hoffer and nine more towns in Maguindanao because their populations fall below the 25,000 residents required by the budget department to qualify for IRA. In the 2010 census, the National Statistics Office further trimmed down the population figure for Datu Hoffer to only 16,295.

In other words, the municipal government of Datu Hoffer gets no revenues from the national government, and has to subsist on whatever taxes or revenues it can raise by itself from the smattering of homes on the hillsides surrounding the town hall.

Yet the upcoming elections will see an all-out battle among members of the Ampatuan clan over Datu Hoffer, which also hosts a significant number of “internally displaced persons” or evacuees.

Ampatuan lair

Incumbent Mayor Johaira “Bong-Bong” Midtimbang Ampatuan, is running for a second term under the opposition Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-LABAN). Ampatuan is the wife of Zaldy Uy Ampatuan, the former Governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and one of the co-accused in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre.

Running against Johaira is a distant relative, Liberal Party (LP) bet Yamashita Mangacop, who says he is related to both the Ampatuans and their main political rival, the Mangudadatus.

Ampatuans are also running against each other for the position of vice mayor: Johaira’s daughter Nor-Aila Ampatuan is also running under the PDP-Laban, while Mhurphy Ampatuan is running under the LP slate. Mhurphy is a second cousin of Johaira’s husband, Zaldy.

For some, it is a paradox why members of just one clan would fight over a backward municipality that is barely as big as a barangay, with no infrastructure to begin with, and with no IRA to support it. Yet the scene is replicated in many other parts of Maguindanao, the second poorest of the 80 provinces in the Philippines, and one long ruled with an iron fist by a family that has extended its influence well beyond the boundaries of Central Mindanao.

Invariably, analysts and the candidates themselves say that the clans have always defined, and will continue to define, the politics of Maguindanao on May 13, 2013.

To a lesser degree, it is also a situation replicated elsewhere in the Philippines, where families are poised to take over every corner of what they see as their “territory,” from barangay level and even up to the halls of Congress.

The race for positions is not just a race to capture any potential resources due the local government such as the IRA. Especially in Maguindanao, more than anything, it is to capture the most basic resource of any community, that one resource that gives any datu or sultan his real source of power, prestige before his peers, and legitimacy in politics: his constituency or his following.

Royal right to rule?

The datu system that distinguishes Muslim Mindanao politics from that of the rest of the country continues to serve as a historical and cultural touchstone of the many clans, which claim royal blood and accordingly the right to rule. But Ishak Mastura, former ARMM trade secretary and a member of one of the major royal families of Maguindanao, clarifies, "The datu cannot be a datu without a following. If you say you are a datu, are you just a datu by blood or by lineage? But if you have no following, then you are a very minor datu, you are a footnote datu."

The significance of the following grows exponentially every three years, when local governments hold elections, and every six years, when national leaders cast their nets wide looking for local leaders who can bring in the numbers needed to swing the national vote.

In Maguindanao, this was best shown during 2004 and 2007, when Andal Ampatuan Sr. guaranteed then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her senatorial lineup magnificent electoral margins in the province to offset the popularity of her rival.

In 2004, Arroyo received statistically improbable numbers in Maguindanao. In at least two towns in the province, Arroyo won all the votes cast in the election, while the hugely popular Fernando Poe Jr. got zero votes. Andal Sr. had also promised a 12-0 sweep for Arroyo’s senatorial lineup, and he delivered.

In return, the Arroyo administration endorsed the rule of the clan whenever its interests intersected with that of the government in power. In doing so, Manila allowed clan politics and clan dynamics to become a necessary part of the relationship between the local families and the national government leadership. This in turn led to the erosion of governance institutions that should have empowered constituencies, enriched debate, and leveled the playing field for new ideas and new personalities.

Stats outlier

Indeed, it appears to have reached a point in which clans vie for elected positions, not so much to govern areas but to command both manpower and resources with which to gather the votes for Manila

The after effects of this cycle can still be felt now: a free-for-all where clan members battle each other or rival clans for both the political and financial spoils in areas where governance and checks and balance have long been compromised or weakened by these same clans.

To partly understand how the Ampatuan patriarch — now in detention as one of the accused in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre — may have fulfilled his promise to Arroyo, one can take a look at the town of Shariff Aguak, a third-class municipality that is also the capital of Maguindanao province.

According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), Shariff Aguak had 34,376 residents as of 2010, when the NSO last conducted a census. Yet in the 2010 elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) reported that the town had 33,684 registered voters. If these official numbers are accurate, this means that of the entire population of Shariff Aguak, only 692 people were not eligible to vote. The other 97.9 percent of the population, apparently all infused with civic duty, are duly registered voters; practically all of them also turn out for elections as evidenced by Maguindanao’s unusually high voter turnout of 97.6 percent.

In December 2012, though, Comelec delisted over 280,000 voters in ARMM or about a fifth of the region’s previous total of 1.82 million voters in 2010. A new general registration in July 2012 required the region’s voters to re-register. Over 33,000 applicants were found to be minors while the other had registered multiple times at various precincts.

In Maguindanao itself, the Comelec removed 103,579 names from province’s original voters list of 543,034 as of January 2013. The Comelec says that of the original number, one of every five voter was either underage or a double registrant.

The list of voters in Shariff Aguak was most probably also trimmed in the process. The same, however, cannot be said of the list of Ampatuans running for public office in the little town in the upcoming polls.

For the May 2013 elections, 21 candidates with the surname Ampatuan are running for public office in Shariff Aguak. Three of the four mayoralty candidates are Ampatuans: Zahara Ampatuan (Partido ng Masang Pilipino, or PMP), Sarip Ampatuan (LP), and Rowella Ampatuan (Ind). Two of the vice mayoralty candidates are also Ampatuans: Marop Ampatuan (PMP), Mohamad Akmad Ampatuan (Ind). Of the 48 candidates running for a seat in the town council of Shariff Aguak, 17 candidates answer to the name Ampatuan.

Voters in excess

In adjacent Datu Unsay town, the situation is even more confounding: There are more registered voters in the town (13,584 voters in 2010, according to the Comelec) than there are people (12,490 residents, according to the 2010 NSO census). An Ampatuan is running for mayor, vice mayor, and councilor there as well.

“The Ampatuan clan is very large,” says Johaira Ampatuan, explaining why it is inevitable that Ampatuans will run against each other in elections. “In 2010, there were a lot of us running, there were nine of us who are incumbent mayors.”

“In fact,” she says, “ in 2010, I did not have an opponent. It is only now that I have one. I would say that maybe he (Mangacop) is here to help me with my problem in Datu Hoffer, and for that I thank him.”

Mangacop himself tells PCIJ, “You know, here in Maguindanao, it’s just not possible for relatives not to end up running against one another.”

He also says there are three requirements for a candidate to win in Maguindanao: “A strong candidate; secondly, an influential candidate; and lastly, he belongs to a family of the people.”

Then he adds, almost as an afterthought, “Perhaps it is the platform that our people should be looking at.”

Connected clans

PCIJ. Count of Clans-Table 1

For sure, though, Maguindanao has other clans of power, aside from the Ampatuans. In fact, Comelec’s official list of candidates for the 2013 elections reads like a who’s who of Maguindanao’s royal families, although the Ampatuans still top the roster, with 80 people carrying Ampatuan as their middle or last name.

They are followed by the Midtimbangs and the Sangkis who are related by marriage to the Ampatuans, with 26 and 25 candidates, respectively; and the Mangudadatus, the foremost rival of the Ampatuans in the 2010 elections, with their own team of 18 candidates.

PCIJ. Count of Clans-Table 2

Also with 22 candidates are the Sinsuats; 15 for the Pendatuns; 14 for the Matalams, and eight for the Masturas.

In some towns, clansmen are running against fellow clansmen, some because of differences in governance styles, others because of differences in personal interests; still others, because of the need to increase the probability that the position still goes to a fellow who shares your last name and your royal heritage. Consider:

  • In Ampatuan town, eight Sangkis and three Ampatuans are running for elective positions, from mayor to town councilor: Johaira Sangki Biruar (Ind), Datu Rasul Sangki (LP), Suraida Ampatuan Mamaluba (PMP) for mayor; Racma Sangki Druz (Ind), Samnon Mamasabang Sangki (LP) for vice mayor; five more Sangkis and two Ampatuans are running for seats in the town council.
  • In Datu Abdullah Sangki, six Sangkis are running for the town council, aside from the three Sangkis who are running for mayor and vice mayor.
  • Buluan town, the bailiwick of the Mangudadatus, has eight Mangudadatus running, including Ibrahim Gaguil Mangudadatu (Ind), Lorena Dingcong Mangudadatu (LP) for mayor; and King Jhazzer Tiamson Mangudadatu (LP) for vice mayor. Five other Mangudadatus are running for a seat in the town council.
  • In Datu Blah Sinsuat town, three Sinsuats are running for mayor: Datu Ibrahim Sinsuat (PDP-LABAN), Datu Marshall Sinsuat (LP), and Haakon Sinsuat (KBL). Four other Sinsuats are running for the town council.
  • In Mamasapano town, also a bailiwick of the Ampatuan clan, four of the six mayoralty candidates are Ampatuans: Norodin Ampatuan (LP), Rebecca Ampatuan (Ind), Tahirodin Benzar Ampatuan (PDP-LABAN), and Saddan Hussein Ampatuan (Ind).
  • In the same town, three of the four vice mayoral candidates are also Ampatuans: Alonto Ampatuan (Ind), Mahir Ampatuan (PDP-LABAN), and Nuali Ampatuan (Ind). Seven Ampatuans are also running for the town council.

PCIJ. Count of Clans-Table 3

Unopposed bets

In other towns across Maguindanao, senior clan members or the newly anointed younger generation already have guaranteed seats, since they are running unopposed for mayor or vice mayor. Many of these candidates even carry the same names of the towns they wish to represent, since the town was either named after their ancestors, or in some cases, after them. They include:

  • Nathaniel Sangacala Midtimbang and Ebrahim Musa Midtimbang are running unopposed for mayor and vice mayor respectively of Datu Anggal Midtimbang town, also under the PDP-LABAN.
  • In Talayan town, the bailiwick of the Midtimbang clan, Tungkang Anggal Midtimbang and Sukarno Musa Midtimbang are running unopposed for mayor and vice mayor respectively under the banner of the PDP-LABAN.
  • In Datu Odin Sinsuat, Datu Ombra Quesada Sinsuat and Sajid Seismundo Sinsuat are running unopposed for mayor and vice mayor under the Liberal Party.
  • In Datu Paglas town, Mohamad Pendatun Paglas and Mohammed Yusseef Powers Paglas are also running without opponents under the LP banner.
  • And in Upi, Ramon Piang is running unopposed for mayor under the Liberal Party.

PCIJ. Count of Clans-Table 4

Outsiders, however, are especially surprised over the continuing presence of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao politics, considering the controversy that has surrounded the clan’s most well-known members.

In truth, when PCIJ last November released a story identifying the national political parties that have included Ampatuan clan members in their slates, there was a general outcry from both the administration and the opposition parties.

Both the administration Liberal Party and the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) bristled at the insinuation that there were any Ampatuans within their ranks. LP Chairman Franklin Drilon immediately ordered that all Ampatuans in the LP slate be taken off the list.

UNA secretary general Toby Tiangco, meanwhile, chose to split hairs by saying that the opposition alliance did not endorse any Ampatuans, although the two member-parties may have done so at the local level.

When confronted with data from the Comelec that showed that nine Ampatuans were running under the LP banner, and 34 under UNA’s PMP and PDP-LABAN, both then stressed that not all Ampatuans subscribed to the rule of former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., the clan patriarch who is accused of masterminding the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

‘For new politics’

Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, LP chairman for Maguindanao, says the Ampatuans in his slate subscribed to a new form of politics different from Andal Sr.’s. UNA’s Tiangco for his part said he sees no problem endorsing the wives of the Maguindanao massacre suspects, since they are not the ones facing multiple murder charges.

To be fair, not every clan member is necessarily cast from the same mold, or stays with the same shape he or she is born with. “We have to understand that the Ampatuans are a big family or clan,” says Mussolini Lidasan, director of the Al Qalam Institute, the research arm of the Ateneo de Davao University and an active member of several Moro civil society organizations. “They are not all similar in terms of principles or even support the style of Datu Andal Ampatuan.”

“You can count the number of people who obeyed Andal Sr. like his sons who committed atrocities,” Mangudadatu says, in defense of his provincial line-up. “But there are Ampatuans who are good.”

He even notes that a brother of provincial board member Yasser Ampatuan (a nephew of Andal Sr.) was shot dead by the old man himself because of a political rivalry in the late ’80s. Yasser, who confirms the story, is vying for another term on the board under the LP.

But an interview with Yasser and Sarip Ampatuan, another May 2013 polls candidate, presents a mixed picture of practical politics heavily nuanced with clan culture.

Both reveal that they were close allies of Andal Sr. in the Lakas party when the latter still reigned over Maguindanao; in fact, Yasser says that he would be appointed by Andal Sr. as OIC governor of Maguindanao whenever the patriarch left for another country because “Datu Andal had full trust in me.”

“That is why he knows me well, and I know him,” he says. “Perhaps he saw that I am a good person and that when it comes to work, I really work.”

Just in-laws

“What I saw based on what he was doing was that Datu Andal was a very good leader,” says Sarip, who is Andal Sr.’s half-brother. “ But his sons did not deserve to lead. That is what destroyed him.”

Sarip, the LP bet, will be running against PDP-Laban’s Zahara Ampatuan, Andal Sr.’s daughter-in-law, in the Shariff Aguak mayoralty race this May. “I thought of running for mayor of Shariff Aguak,” he says, “because I think that in our town, in our area, now that Datu Andal and his sons are no longer there, we cannot accept that someone else is leading our town aside from our family.”

“Zahara is different, she is an in-law,” he says, when it is pointed out that he will be up against a fellow Ampatuan. “She is the wife of (Anwar) and an in-law of Datu Sr., and we cannot accept that Zahara is our mayor.”

Naguib Sinarimbo, a human-rights lawyer and a former ARMM executive secretary, meanwhile says that it was not unexpected that the Ampatuans would seek alliances with national parties, even opposing parties.

“Their hold on power is still there, and it’s still strong,” says Sinarimbo. “They would be a force to reckon with in the 2013 elections. You would see for instance alliances being formed with their group and some other politicians. Maybe they will not venture into directly participating in the provincial or regional elections but they would still be courted by politicians in the province and even by national candidates because they still deliver the votes.”

According to Bobby Taguntong, Maguindanao coordinator for the nongovernment organization Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms, local polls in clan areas have little to do with party politics and platforms. Rather, parties try to woo local candidates who can bring in the needed votes on the national level.

“Political parties are not part of the discussions here,” says Taguntong. We are talking here of who you are, and who wants to run for election. This was never about parties.” — With additional research by Karol Ilagan, PCIJ, April 2013