Putting Maguindanao in context

It is the seat of Bangsamoro pride and the heartland of the Moro Sultanate. But as authorities slowly unearth the events that unfolded along a remote stretch of highway Monday morning, November 23, Maguindanao province now holds the distinction of having the worst single case of election violence in recent Philippine history.

As of Monday night, authorities have found at least 21 mutilated bodies in Masalay, Datu Abdullah Sangki town in Maguindanao. They are believed to belong to a group of 50 people, including 30 local journalists, that departed Buluan town earlier in the day to witness the filing of the certificate of candidacy of gubernatorial hopeful Ishmael Mangudadatu at the Comelec office in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao.

Authorities say the convoy was waylaid by a large group of armed men; Mangudadatu insists that the men were led by his political rival, Andal Ampatuan. Ishmael himself avoided filing his certificate of candidacy in person because of political tensions between him and Ampatuan. Instead, he sent his wife Genalyn and other female relatives, hoping that the females and the accompanying journalists would defuse the tension.

As of press time however, authorities have still not found the other members of the convoy. Instead, army officials say they recovered the mutilated bodies of 13 women and eight men. Some of the bodies have already been identified as belonging to people from the ill-fated convoy. Their vehicles were recovered by the highway, the contents ransacked of all valuables.

Media groups also fear for the lives of the missing journalists who accompanied the convoy. The Philippine Daily Inquirer says that some 37 journalists signed an attendance sheet just before the convoy left Buluan town at 9am. It would be the single largest group of journalists captured or held hostage in the world.

While Moros have always been proud of both their long history of resistance and a rich and colorful culture, politics in many areas in Muslim Mindanao are still overshadowed by the influence of powerful clans that dictate both affiliations and allegiances, especially in long-running blood feuds called rido. These clans hold sway over their areas much like feudal overlords of old, with the power of life or death over their subjects at their fingertips.

AMPATUAN candidates in the May 2007 elections [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

The private armies of these ruling clans are, for all intents and purposes, also funded through government coffers. Since the local government code allows local officials to choose their local police chiefs, many local policemen are ineffectual at best, or act as bodyguards of the local mayor or congressman. In addition, local officials have also effectively used the threat of the Moro secessionist movement in the area to deputize and arm their own men using taxpayers’ money. These deputies or militiamen are called civilian volunteer officers, or CVOs, who join occasional military operations, but for the most part merely take orders from local officials.

In the wake of Monday’s incident in Maguindanao, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism revisits several stories the Center has published on Maguindanao’s culture and politics, and its culture of politics.

Our former deputy executive director Jaileen Jimeno wrote a series of stories in 2008 that focused on the province. “Amid the fighting, the clan rules in Maguindanao” looked at the influential Ampatuan clan and its close ties to Malacanang: “(Analysts) note that no less than the Palace made it legal for the Ampatuans to have hundreds of armed men and women under their employ. The 1987 Constitution bans private armed groups. In July 2006, however, the Arroyo administration issued Executive Order 546, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as ‘force multipliers’ in the fight against insurgents. In practice, the EO allows local officials to convert their private armed groups into legal entities with a fancy name: civilian volunteer organizations (CVO).”

A sidebar, “Young guns, young terror” focused on how private armies in Maguindanao are filled by young recruits. Meanwhile, “Maguindanao, RP fall behind key indicators for education” examined how the province has been falling behind Millennium Development Goals for education, a situation exacerbated by armed conflict in the region.

In 2006, journalist Samira Gutoc penned a first-person piece about being a journalist in Mindanao, and the challenges idealistic young Moros face as they struggle to bring about change to the region.

Gutoc was part of a documentary project with Howie Severino in 2002 that focused on the conflict in Mindanao as well as efforts of the people there to move beyond the conflict. In a story for the PCIJ, Severino noted how, while the conflict between the government and various rebel groups hog the headlines, minor wars between feuding families generally went unreported.

Recently, the PCIJ also published a photo essay by Nonoy Espina on mostly-forgotten refugees in Maguindanao, which underscores the role journalists play to bring to light the plight of people in the conflict-ridden area.

Maguindanao, as one of the five poorest provinces in the country, is also part of Suriin ang Kahirapan, a PCIJ crowdsourcing project that aims to audit the poverty in these places.