The Clan Politics of Maguindanao

Nat’l politicos prop dynasties
as surrogates to win elections

Last of Three Parts

PRESIDENT BENIGNO Simeon C. Aquino III may have taken to publicly scolding septuagenarian Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III over the latter’s role in the recent Sabah misadventure, but when Manila was still a marshland, the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao were already thriving political and economic centers in the region. Unlike the clans in Luzon and the Visayas who trace their roots to their economic base in the area, the clans in Moro areas have deeper historical and religious roots.

“The clans have played an important role in pre-republic history,” says Mussolini Lidasan, director of the Al Qalam Institute, the research arm of the Ateneo de Davao University and an active member of Moro civil society organizations. “The datu system is one of the oldest potent institutions in Southern Philippines.”

Indeed, the datu system, an ancient political and social structure that has defined much of the history of the southern Philippines, provides continuity between a proud past and the tumultuous present. Yet it is one that has radically evolved — some would even say corrupted — into what many outsiders now perceive to be a system of patronage, corruption, inefficiency, and ruthlessness, especially in Maguindanao. As a result, the clans it has produced in the province are now perceived by many as the poster children of the worst kind of political dynasties.

Obviously, that was not how the way the system had been set up. Lidasan, himself a member of several royal-political clans, including the Sinsuats and the Balabarans., says, “A datu or sultan is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet and because of this, he is a traditional and a religious leader.”

Reciprocal ties

The historian William Henry Scott noted that the in the past, datus appeared to have a somewhat reciprocal relationship with their constituents: “The datu’s power stems from the willingness of his followers to render him respect and material support, to accept and implement his decisions, and to obey and enforce his orders, and is limited by the consensus of his peers. Followers give their support in response to his ability and willingness to use his power on their behalf, to make material gifts or loans in time of crisis, and to provide legal or police protection and support against opponents.”

People needed datus then, in the same way that datus needed people to lead, says Ishak Mastura, a descendant of Sultan Mastura, and a member of one of the major royal families of Maguindanao. “If you are a datu, you have a following. You combine yourselves so you have protection, so you are stronger, if another clan or another group attacks you.”

He also says, “In the history of Maguindanao, it is always those who can gather the most number of people under his leadership who are the most important ones. It means the relationship is symbiotic. It cannot just be one way.”

Naguib Sinarimbo, a human-rights lawyer and a descendant as well of several political families in Maguindanao, says structures were put in place to allow for a kind of checks and balances of a datu’s rule.

In Maguindanao, a datu would have an atas bichara, or a consultative assembly composed of representatives of the principalities. There is also the luwaran, or the written law of the land. “Paluwaran in Maguindanao defines the structure of society and the obligations of citizens, the sultan, or the datu,” Sinarimbo says. “The monarch does not have absolute rule in the Maguindanao setting.”

Had slaves ‘til 1986

A datu or any royalty for that matter, however, still retains privileges not made available to ordinary citizens. In many ways, the sense of entitlement carries over to the present day.

“In our place, we own one barangay,” says Ali Macabalang, a local journalist who is linked by blood and marriage to the Adiong and Alonto clans. “It was a sign of royalty if you had slaves. I remember we had seven slaves at home.” Macabalang said he set free his last slave only in 1986.

“It also depends on the history of the clan,” he adds. “There are clans here who just played with the people. Just for fun, they would remove the kneecaps of the people, and make them dance like they were geese.”

(Macabalang is referring to Datu Uttoh, a Maguindanaoan royal from the last century. According to historians, including the late Muslim scholar Cesar Adib Majul, Datu Uttoh had a proclivity for having the kneecaps of his enemies crushed before having them thrown under his house to live with the family animals.)

But if the datu system worked relatively well enough for four centuries, what was it that happened in the last century that has led to the popular perception of Maguindanao clans as royalty who have lost touch with their base, or worse, warlords and politicians who rule with ruthlessness and utter disregard for their constituents?

“Datus reflect the feudalistic nature of our institutions,” offers Lidasan. “Hence the datus reinvent themselves from time to time, making sure that their interest, the clan’s interest is maintained and preserved.”

For sure, like all social structures, the datu system has evolved over the centuries to its present day form. In the Maguindanao context, the role of an emerging central authority in Manila is said to have had a major influence in the progression – some would say regression– of the clan system of Maguindanao.

Sinarimbo says both the Spanish and American invaders tried to quell rebellion in the region by selecting the more cooperative clans, arming them, and playing them against other families.

Surrogates & clans

“When the Americans came in, they wanted a control, a surrogate inside the Moro community,” he says.“Some of the influential clans were built, others were neutralized.”

Sinarimbo cites the case of the rebellious Datu Ali during the American period. “His family was deliberately obliterated by the Americans to give way to some other clans. Because he fought against the Americans, the Americans did everything to prevent his rising power and supported other clans.

“Foreigners introduced a type of government not acceptable to the Bangsamoro setting, but acceptable to the black sheep of the families who can take advantage of their offer,” says Taguntong. “Sometimes, the black sheep of the clan are used against their fellow Moros.”

The impact of this went deeper than just inter-clan jockeying for the spoils from Manila; the new ruling clans would still wield enormous power and influence granted them by the datu system over their constituents, but without the accountability. They were, after all, really accountable to their main sponsor in Manila.

It is, unfortunately, a process that has been continued by Manila until today, as exemplified by the preeminence of the clan led by Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. in Maguindanao.

Then in 1935, the Commonwealth government headed by Manuel L. Quezon stripped sultans and datus of many of the traditional powers and authority that they had held for centuries. The Director for Non-Christian tribes issued a directive preventing the datus from trying and adjudicating cases in the community level.

Reinvented clans

“When our government in 1935 removed the functions of the datus and sultans, these people then re-reinvented themselves from datus to mayors, governors, et cetera,” says Lidasan. “Thus, the datuism and local governance were mixed together, having a hybrid function that is prone to corruption and abuses when they are not properly defined. (Royalty), with all its attendant power and influence over the constituency, found a new outlet in politics.

Current events only served to reinforce the new system of patronage. With the outbreak of the Moro rebellion in the 1970s, Manila again had to select clan members who could tame their other rebellious peers.

“The conflicts forced the national government to introduce its own set of datus which may not necessarily be the datu of choice of the communities,” says Zainudin Malang, director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center based in Cotabato, and himself a member of a political clan.

He explains, “If you were sitting in Camp Aguinaldo or Malacañang, you’d think, how do you neutralize this? You find someone else in the clan who is willing to be co-opted. These are big clans — you will be able to find someone there who is willing to toe the line.”

“That is nothing new in any internal insurgency,” he adds. “Always, the national government will find someone in that community to become its surrogate.”

“You would not expect one clan to kill the member of another clan,” remarks Sinarimbo. “They will be afraid of retaliation. So there is a deterrent effect. But when the state adds on the instruments of violence to just one clan by favoring it, the chance of violence and abuse is greater because that clan can access all that.”

“When central government sponsors local politicians,” he continues, “the danger is always there because your surrogate will build his own infrastructure. So even if there is no legitimacy from the population, he will build a structure that will enable him to be in control.”

Mindsets within the clans also changed as the institution evolved. Royal stature translated to political power, which brought many attendant benefits.

Limited options

“Living in Maguindanao and being part of the political and traditional clans, you have very limited options in life,” observes Lidasan. “Either you engage in an agricultural business, join politics, or join the government and try to find ways to enrich yourself in doing so. Because of this paradigm, more often than not, families and close relatives fight one another just to enter politics, government, and even in business.”

“In other words,” he says, “we have a problem of seeing government functions, institutions, and organizations as a family enterprise. Thus, opportunities for development, bringing new ideas, and recognition and respect of human dignity are not factored in the mindset of our people.”

“Every clan needs to protect its honor and family name,” Lidasan says. “Thus, people defer to them because of fear and respect. Imagine a datu who is a member of the royalty has the mindset that he is a king or a prince. Thus, the internal revenue allotment is for their own disposal alone.”

Taguntong, for his part, says, “Before, there was a sense of responsibility by the datu. But this sense of responsibility is gone, and only authority is left. The responsibility to the people is no more. That’s why we have the problem of corruption.”

At the height of the Moro rebellion in the 1970s, however, Andal Ampatuan Sr. was not yet pandering to Malacañang. According to Mastura, Andal Sr. also became a rebel like his grandfather. “Maybe Datu Andal was not a big commander of the Moro National Liberation Front,” Mastura says, “but he was known also as one of those who struggled against the government because their town of Ampatuan was one of the sites of the fiercest fights, especially Christian and Muslim fights.”

In 1987, Andal Sr. ran and won as mayor of Maganoy, now named Shariff Aguak. The year 2001 was another turning point for the Ampatuans, with Andal Sr. elected governor of Maguidanao. It is said that Andal had the backing of the military, because his main rival, Zacaria Candao, was widely perceived to be coddling to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). One of Andal Sr.’s sons, Zaldy Uy Ampatuan, took his place as mayor of Shariff Aguak.

Arroyo & Andal

In Manila, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was busy struggling to consolidate her position after ousting Joseph Estrada in the second People Power revolt. Hounded by questions of legitimacy, Arroyo was besieged by pro-Estrada supporters who rioted in front of Malacañang in May 2001. All in all, the time was ripe for the interests of Andal Sr. and Gloria Arroyo to intersect.

In the years that followed, Andal Sr. carefully built his relationship with both military and political leaders on the regional and national levels. Mastura recalls that Andal Sr. was largely successful in reuniting the feuding clans of Maguindanao under his wing, a move that was certain to catch the attention of Malacanang.

Retired Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, who served as martial law administrator of Maguindanao after the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, acknowledges that the Ampatuan clan wielded an inordinate amount of influence on virtually all levels, even beyond the confines of Central Mindanao. It was a kind of clout that was unique to the Ampatuans, he says, and could not be seen with other political clans all over the Philippines.

“The clans were that powerful, to a point where they choose which battalion commander will be appointed there, or brigade commander,” he says. “Or even division commander, they can make a special request to higher authority. They can show that if you do not cooperate they can call on people higher than you.”

“The challenge to the commander is how to deal with the local politician,” says Ferrer. “You are talking of the mayor, the governor, the regional governor, or even the barangay. They are all related.”

For example, he says, the Ampatuans were allowed to form and arm 200 Special Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units Active Auxiliaries (SCAA), a special militia normally created to protect the interests of large businesses such as mining firms.

This is aside from the roughly 1,500 civilian volunteer organization (CVO) members that the Ampatuans were allowed to form to fight off the threat of the MILF in Maguindanao.

Big private army

Combined, the two forces effectively became a brigade-size private army of the Ampatuan clan. Says Ferrer: “The control was very loose in Maguindanao, there was no semblance of control. The clans were the ones deploying and assigning the military units.”

“Their rule was absolute,” Sarimbo says of the Ampatuans. “I have seen them rule Maguindanao and the region. They had direct access to Malacañang and nobody could say no to them because they had an exclusive line.”

“In the beginning, he did some good by uniting the clans and making it less a contest in the elections where it is brother against brother, clan against clan, or family against family,” Mastura says, referring to Andal Sr. “But in the end he may have tilted more towards relying on these clans than going to the grassroots.”

“Malacañang was happy because this simplified control over ARMM,” says Sinarimbo. “They only needed to talk to one man. If you want the delivery of votes, you talk to one man.”

Concepts at a cross

Ironically, Ali Macabalang, the local journalist who also belongs to several prominent clans, asserts that datuism naturally runs into conflict with modern electoral processes, in that a candidate running for electoral post must sell himself to the voter.

“Elections are actually anathema to datuism,” says Macabalang. “If you don’t belong to this royal lineage, you do not have the say or the space in a democracy.”

Malang, however, prefers to place datuism in the context of its role in the past. “In a sense, there is democracy, although the articulation of that democracy is indigenous,” he says.” It may not necessarily mirror the systems of the Americans, but just because it does not mirror that system does not mean that it is not democratic. There was accountability and legitimacy, and you could be held to account.”

Former ARMM official Mastura meanwhile says, “These are older forms of social practice, maybe feudal forms going back to the barangay system, so that they legitimize power by having elections. But it is an older system of patronage politics, and the elections are just a way to express and make it legitimate in the eyes of the many.”

“The datu system will never disappear,” says Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, himself a member of the Buayan royalty and whose wife and sister were among those killed in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre.

Mangudadatu thinks that people still need a link to their past, even if this link eventually evolves into one more social than political in nature. “For example,” he says, “in our community, there is need for a datu like us. The one who took over my uncle Sultan Abdula Mangudadatu is the youngest among the brothers. So he was enthroned, and that is made known to the whole province that he has been enthroned a sultan.”

But many also agree on the need for the sacred traditions to evolve with the times. In the case of the datu system, Mastura and Lidasan acknowledge that this practice would inevitably have to adapt to the idea of democracy, even if it is in the western liberal democratic context.

Malaysia and Indonesia, countries with which many parts of Mindanao have more in common with than Manila, have a similar datu system dating back to the time when Islam was the common thread of the sultanates that predated the modern nation-states. Yet their datu system evolved in a different direction, with less of the problem of royalty-turned-political families that the Philippines has now.

Political officers

Lidasan thinks the difference arose from the different historical tracks that the Philippines and these other countries took. He notes, “President Manuel L. Quezson, in the 1935 Constitution, ensured that datuism will be prohibited. Thus, datuism was (perceived) to be corrupt. Instead of its religious function, the datu became a political officer.”

And so, the Philippine datu entered Philippine politics. “In Malaysia and Indonesia, the datu are only symbolic powers,” Lidasan says. “If they decide to join politics, then they have to waive their datu rights. But here in our country, a datu became a warlord.”

Taguntong also recalls a time when datus were community leaders, akin to barangay captains, simple unpaid volunteers who were the rallying point of their communities. But when the barangays started receiving internal revenue allotments, and the position took on a more political tone, so did the datu system.

Lidasan offers a slightly different view: “People serve the datu. But a mayor or a public official, they serve the people.”

“Imagine,” he says, “the difference in that paradigm and mindset.” — PCIJ, April 2013