Fear, terror, poverty mix in Maguindanao

Arroyo, Ampatuans mocked agencies in crafty power play

Last of Two Parts

A FEW weeks after the Maguindanao massacre, Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, chief administrator of martial law in the area, received an unusual call on his cell phone.

On the other end of the line was a trusted aide of Datu Zaldy Uy Ampatuan, who was days earlier replaced as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Zaldy was one of several members of the Ampatuan clan jailed on charges of rebellion, stemming from the November 23 carnage that left at least 57 people dead.

Sir, kunin mo na lang, sa iyo na lang daw ang Tavor ni RG (Sir, just get it, RG’s Tavor is yours),” Ferrer recalls the aide as saying. ‘RG’ referred to Regional Governor Zaldy Ampatuan. ‘Tavor’ referred to the Tavor Assault Rifle (TAR-21), the latest and flagship assault rifle produced by Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), makers of the legendary Uzi and Galil. Famous for its high-tech, waterproof, and lightweight “bullpup” design, the Tavor comes with a heavyweight price of P500,000.

Actually, it wasn’t clear if the offer was for just one gun. Based on records of the Philippine National Police’s Firearms and Explosives Division (PNP-FED), Zaldy Ampatuan has two Tavors registered in his name.

At the time, government troops were busy raiding the Ampatuan mansions and turning Maguindanao inside out for firearms. Ferrer says that he rejected the offer of a free Tavor outright. “I wasn’t about to take it,” he says. “Am I stupid enough to display a Tavor?”

But he says his caller told him, “Okay sir, I will just find a way to get it out of the house.”

The incident illustrates the curious yet alarming relationships that the Ampatuans have successfully cultivated with military officers and national officials over the years. More importantly, it shows how Andal Ampatuan Sr., the family patriarch, had successfully parlayed his role as government’s chief ally against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) into a highly influential and profitable political empire that now spans the breadth of Central Mindanao, and how he used the traditional Moro structures of authority and royalty for his own ends.

Growing list

In the last two decades, the power, presence, and influence of the Ampatuan clan, as well as the fortunes of at least one of its branches, have grown immeasurably, from wielding control of a tiny town in Central Mindanao to the governance of an entire region that includes portions of Southern Mindanao. As of last count, there are 44 elective officials in Maguindanao and the ARMM who answer to the name Ampatuan.

The clan counts as members two recently ousted governors, both sons of Andal Sr.; one vice governor; eight municipal mayors; five vice mayors; three provincial board members; 15 municipal board members; and 10 barangay chairmen. This tally does not yet include other members of the Ampatuan clan who no longer carry the family’s last name because of marriage, or officials who were appointed to their positions.

This is not to say the Ampatuans were virtual unknowns before Andal Sr. was elected Maganoy mayor in 1988. Moro scholar Jamal Ashley Abbas says the Ampatuans were already a prominent clan during the last century, even during the colonial era. “The Ampatuans are a datu (clan),” he says. “I think they became prominent during the American period, during the fall of the sultanates of Maguindanao and Buayan.”

A succession of Ampatuans reportedly ruled Maganoy, the old name of the present capital town of Shariff Aguak.

Ilaga vs pusa

The Ampatuans also played a significant role in the bloody 1970 conflict between the government and Moro rebels.  Abbas recalls that when the armed Christian settlers formed the ‘Ilaga’— “rat”in Bisaya – group, Moro families formed their own armed group called ‘Pusa,’ or “cat.” Pusa was an acronym for the major clans that took part in the fighting: the Pendatuns, the Sinsuats, and the Ampatuans.

Andal Sr. is known to have fought Moro rebels during the latter part of the Marcos regime as a local militia leader in Maganoy.  But it is unclear if he was fighting the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) at that time, or the breakaway MILF, although the latter is now his arch nemesis.

What no one questions is that over the years, Andal Sr. worked his way into the local system, ingratiating himself with military and police officials. Sultan Kudarat Islamic Academy professor Michael Mastura, who belongs to one of Maguindanao’s major clans, says Andal Sr. even had a stint in the local jail, first as an inmate, then later either as a jailer or a warden.

In both roles, Andal Sr. was infamous for his frontier-style brutality, says Mastura. He also comments, “He was a product of his time, a throwback to the Moro days of banditry.”

Yet although he won his first major local position in the first post-EDSA election, Andal Sr. remained under the national political radar until his election as Maguindanao governor in 1998. Taking his place as Shariff Aguak mayor was his son Zaldy. By 2009, the Ampatuans held Maguindanao and the rest of ARMM in a firm grip.

Natural ally

At first, Ampatuan’s main card was his fight with the MILF, and it was a card he played well. Successive administrations had counted on local government officials to beef up government troops in conflict areas with local militias. The somewhat hazy arrangement was legitimized when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued Executive Order 546 in 2006, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods and volunteers as force multipliers. Overnight, the private armies that the government was supposed to hunt down were transformed into comrades-at-arms, armed and supplied by state arsenals.

As overlord of Maguindanao, Andal Sr. virtually controlled the province’s main highway, from Ampatuan town in the south to Cotabato City in the north, with an army of at least 2,000 fully armed civilian volunteer organization (CVO) members, by Ferrer’s own estimate. Except for a few army and CAFGU checkpoints, almost every armed man along the highway owed his loyalty to an Ampatuan.

“He became a natural ally against the MILF,” says Ferrer. “He has CVOs as the outer perimeter of our security area. The AFP secures the highways and the population centers, but we had no forces for the outskirts, so he provided the answer.”

“The government needed someone who could be a Muslim to confront the MILF,” explains Mus Lidasan, president of Konsult Mindanaw, a grassroots group assisting in the peace talks between the government and the MILF. “That’s how (the Ampatuans) became allies (of the government). That’s the root of their power.”

It was a role the military appreciated deeply, and which made up for whatever shortcomings or excesses the Ampatuans would exhibit for all officialdom to see. The Ampatuan army would often do battle with men of MILF 105th base command leader Umbra Kato and other MILF commanders to the point where it was almost beginning to look like a rido, or a bitter clan war. In fact, Ferrer says that he now hesitates to completely disarm all CVOs in Maguindanao, as earlier reported, because this would put many of them in danger of retaliation from the MILF.

Going straight up

The Ampatuans, however, were not content with flexing their military muscle in front of acquiescent military officers. They also became adept at playing the political game, courting local military commanders with expensive gifts, while at the same time reminding them that the clan had the power to have them removed on a whim.

Ferrer recalls how, when he was still 6th Infantry Division commander, a position that gave him control of all of Central Mindanao, Andal Sr. would send him frequent and persistent requests for ammunition. The military official says he tried to dodge the requests; he preferred replenishing the Ampatuans’ ammunition stocks only after these were diminished by fighting, fearing the clan was getting too powerful.

“But during the fighting last year,” Ferrer says, “(Andal Sr.) gained a reason to ask for ammo, he said he cannot fight the MILF without ammo.”

In the end, Ampatuan got what he wanted. Admits Ferrer: “He started calling people (higher) up, so I had to help him.”

Ferrer says he also once received an M4 assault rifle after a meeting with then ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan. He says it was thrust on him by an Ampatuan aide while he was leaving. The aide said it was a gift “from RG,” recounts Ferrer, who says he did not know what the package contained until he opened it back at camp. A basic M4 assault rifle, without accessories, costs from $2,000 to 2,800 when purchased in bulk.

Ferrer says that although he felt uneasy, “in their culture, you cannot refuse a gift. It’s a sign of goodwill. If you refuse, they will make a phone call, saying you should be replaced because you are not cooperative.”

This practice has compromised some military commanders in the past, he concedes, but he says it was different in his case. “How do you retain your integrity? Don’t ask for anything,” he says. “Accept the gifts, just don’t ask for anything.”

Ferrer also says he modified the gift rifle to make it unrecognizable. “For your gift, I would say thank you,” he says. “We are friends, but do not say that you own me.”

Influence in Manila

But the Ampatuans’ influence would extend way beyond Central Mindanao, and beyond the local military and police authorities. When the administration made an extremely good showing during the 2004 and 2007 polls in Maguindanao province, critics claimed the clean sweep was due to dirty tactics courtesy of those in power there.

In the 2004 presidential elections, Maguindanao gave Arroyo 193,938 votes against almost 59,892 votes for Fernando Poe Jr. Then elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano of the ‘Hello Garci’ infamy, was heard on the tape assuring someone believed by many to be Arroyo that Maguindanao would not be a problem. In the 2007 congressional and local polls, Maguindanao gave the administration a 12-0 victory.

Ferrer refuses to comment on the role played by the Ampatuans in these elections, but he acknowledges that there were favors the clan gave that made its members think they were indispensible. “Maybe,” he says, “he (Andal Sr.) started feeling untouchable because of whatever political favors he got from the national government.”

In the eyes of the military commanders, the Ampatuans were just one of several obvious warlords across Central Mindanao, a reality that many of them had to deal with, work with, or, depending on the sensibilities of the commander in question, work for.

The main difference was that the Ampatuans had shown to the military and Malacanang the advantage of having a strongman wield complete control in one of the country’s wilder regions. And just like the Ampatuans’ relationship with the military, it became less clear whether Malacanang’s relationship with the clan was symbiotic or parasitic. After years of dependence on each other, who held whom by the collar became hazy.

Asked why the government did not try curbing the Ampatuans’ clout earlier, Ferrer says, “We don’t expect national government to see that. We are the people on the ground, the police, the military, the media. We could see something was wrong, but we did not expect something like the November massacre.”

He says he recognized there was something wrong from the start, but it was in a degree that was still acceptable to the military.

“You mix culture of silence, fear, and violence, so what will prevail is warlordism or datuism,” he says. “There is no sense of governance. They don’t feel they are not doing the right thing because they have a different value system, they don’t really think, ‘what is the standard of governance?’ They think when you are governor, that is warlordism – ‘I am a governor, not a public servant.’ Datuism and warlordism come into play.”

An elephant occupying space

Jesuit priest Albert Alejo, a convenor of Konsult Mindanaw, says that everyone has been ignoring the obvious all along. He recalls how, in a government briefing for a funding agency in Mindanao,  a military official gave a talk on the region’s problems – the rebels, poverty, the proliferation of guns, and corruption. When one member of the audience asked why there was no mention of the warlords, the briefer was silent.

“These warlords are felt but people do self-censorship, they don’t want to mention them,” Alejo says. “Warlordism is seldom mentioned. It’s a reality, it’s (an) elephant occupying a lot of space, yet people don’t want to touch it, don’t want to talk about it. Even the funding agencies know about it.”

Scholar Abbas, however, is careful to make the distinction between warlords and the datus, saying, “When we talk of warlordism right now in the West, it is the rise of somebody through political or violent or illegal means. But when we talk of Mindanao, it is usually the traditional feudal system we have, the datu system. The political system of the Philippines is not fully entrenched in Mindanao, so we still have the datu system, or in some parts, they call it the sultanates.”

Abbas argues that these clans are historical realities that have also served, and in other cases, are still serving their purpose. “They served a purpose during the Marcos time,” he says, “when Marcos initiated and funded and armed Christian elements to attack the Moros, it is these datus who formed the first line of defense.”

“You can’t change it, it is hereditary,” he says. “They still have the power, even politically, not only those who are armed. You have the clan system. You cannot erase them, even though there are now many additional warlords — jueteng lords, the drug lords,  and the others.”

Rule of the best

The Pre-Hispanic datus were basically tribal chieftains who ranked lower than the sultans, providing protection and help to communities in exchange for tribute. A datu’s strength and authority was measured by the number of his followers. These are traits that are reflected in some datus until now, making it easy to portray a datu as a warlord.

But more than chieftains that commanded communities during times of war, the datus were supposed to be an aristocratic class comprising the community’s best and the brightest. Says Abbas: “When we say aristocrat, it is the literal term, it is the rule of the best. If you are the datu, you are supposed to be the exemplar, intellectually, politically, in all fields. But now, it is more on guns, goons and gold.”

“Marcos changed Moro society, it is now upside down,” Abbas says. “They got the upstarts, they got the nobodies. They changed it, like what he did in Philippine society, he changed it.”

For instance, Andal Sr., who reached only as far as Grade 3, now seems to lord over his clan, even though many other Ampatuans are better educated than he is.

Abbas also says, “The datus, they have their own bailiwicks but it’s the Philippine government that chooses one of them and makes them super-warlords. And when they become super-warlords, the balance of terror is broken, and this one guy Ampatuan became a super-warlord.”

Ferrer, for his part, says that the military and Malacanang failed to recognize how the Ampatuans were using the MILF as a cover for their abuses. As he puts it, “Some people can sustain the MILF problem so it doesn’t go away, to justify the lack of governance and the spending of the Internal Revenue Allotment for security and intelligence. Nobody will audit you in Maguindanao if there is the MILF there.”

But Lowell Macabangen, who is related to the Ampatuans and was a member of then ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan’s cabinet, dismissed descriptions of the Ampatuans as virtual warlords. He says that if not for the November 23 massacre, Maguindanao would have made for a model province during elections.

He says that the way polls are run in many areas in the province – with only one candidate running unopposed for a public post – is exemplary:  “Isa lang ang governor, isa lang ang vice governor, isa lang ang kandidato. Kung ganyan ang entire Philippines, wala nang problema. Dapat tularan, para wala nang gulo. ‘Di tulad ng Abra, pinag- aawayan ang mga eleksiyon. (There’s only one governor, only one vice governor, only one candidate. If that’s how it is in the entire Philippines, we won’t have any problems. It should be copied by other places to eliminate trouble. Unlike Abra where conflicts break out over elections.)”

For now, the top-rung Ampatuans have been removed from the picture as the patriarch and some of his sons face murder and rebellion charges. But AFP’s Ferrer says the problem has grown larger than just one clan. For sure, many other Ampatuans remain in various levels of power across Central Mindanao.

“(The Lakas party) party expelled the Ampatuans, and got the Mangudadatus,” he points out. “Now they are allies with the Masturas. The Masturas are also warlords, right? (The Mangudadatus have) many guns, and they have allied themselves with the Sinsuats. Those people also have private armed groups, and they have not surrendered any firearms. Combine all their arms, and that’s another group of warlords. Some people used to say, Maguindanao is lucky, you only have to talk to one person, one boss. In Sulu, you have many warlords, many bosses.”

But Konsult Mindanaw’s Lidasan, who is related to both the Ampatuans and Mangudadatus, says that solving Maguindanao’s problems means addressing many more issues than just warlordism and datuism.

“The spirit of democracy is somehow imposed on us,” he says. “We know that democracy needs people who are educated. But in our area, it’s command votes, there’s datuism….as much as we want (democracy), we are not that ready for such processes.”

“Apo Pua was the longest mayor of Buluan, and he was really a warlord at some point because he was forced to become a warlord because his area was unstable,” Lidasan says of the Mangudadatu patriarch Pax Mangudadatu, father of Buluan Vice Mayor Ismael Mangudadatu. “If you own a land, how do you protect your crops or develop your cattle if you don’t have arms? It could be easily taken away from you.”

Lidasan does say, though, that the best way to rid Maguindanao of warlords and private armies is by empowering and educating people. “There won’t be any warlord if there aren’t any people who are suffering,” he says. “So give more opportunities to these people. For example, I am a Muslim, I am an Iranon, but why do I have to go to Davao to study law? Why do I have to go to a Catholic school to study? Dapat even among us merong school that can give us the proper education”

“That’s the most cliché, but that’s the most basic thing,” Lidasan says. “Empower the people by giving them proper education. That can level the field.”  – PCIJ, February 2010