Today is the second anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.
Although the lush green forest in the southern Philippines is quiet now, people cried out to heaven here. Fifty-eight trees have been planted, one for each victim, and a large memorial is nearing completion at the site. Superstitious locals believe the place will remain haunted while those who were killed continue to wait for justice.
A powerful warlord in the southern province of Maguindanao ambushed a group comprising the wife and sisters of a rival candidate for the local governorship and a large entourage of supporters, lawyers, and media people. They were kidnapped and taken to a killing field chosen days in advance. When it was over, at least 58 people were dead, 32 of them journalists. Dozens of police officers and paramilitaries participated in the slaughter and a battalion of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP — not to be confused with the Australian Federal Police) surrounded the site, apparently to keep onlookers at bay.
Members of the Ampatuan clan were quickly identified, but they held the top positions in regional government and were strong supporters of then President Gloria Arroyo. Indeed, they provided the enormous pool of fraudulent votes which allowed the Arroyo regime to claim victory in various campaigns. With a bitter fight just beginning for the 2010 election, the assistance of warlords in Mindanao was needed again. They believed themselves invincible.
Now, two years later, a second consecutive president has been arrested on leaving office.
Following in the steps of convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada, last Friday afternoon Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was charged with fraud involving the 2007 election (when she was desperately trying to stack the Philippine Senate to prevent exactly the fate that has finally overtaken her). A co-accused is Andal Ampatuan, Sr, the mastermind of the Maguindanao Massacre. The arrest of Arroyo highlights that the 2009 atrocity was about keeping warlords and kleptocrats in power and delivering votes.
The Philippines is a troubled neighbour that Australians tend to ignore. It is the "other archipelago" toward which Canberra has pursued a bipartisan policy of stability at all costs, even if it has meant supporting a notorious dictator like Marcos and successive kleptocrats like Estrada and Arroyo. This approach has not worked very well. Yet Australia continues to pour millions of dollars of aid money into perverse forms of developmentalism and even supports the AFP’s murderous counter-insurgency program known as OPLAN Bayanihan. Intensifying the violence only worsens the misery.
The Maguindanao Massacre staggered the nation and the world with its audacity and brutality. While it seemed like an act of consummate arrogance, however, it is also a sign of weakness, declining authority, and power being challenged. The Ampatuan patriarch was stepping down, leaving his fiefdom to a new generation of untested and largely inept underlings.
In a moving front-page tribute to fallen comrades, the Philippine Daily Inquirer drew attention to the fact that even before this massacre as many as 68 journalists had already been summarily executed since Arroyo seized power in 2001. Former UN Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, had already condemned the role of the armed forces in this reign of terror.
He was especially scathing about the impunity they enjoy. Included within the AFP’s chain of command are cultist groups, paramilitaries, and liquidation teams. And most warlords do not have private armies; they have security details which comprise the AFP’s irregular forces. These are units known as the Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO) or the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU).
In this case, the Maguindanao Special CAFGU Auxiliary (SCAA) provided most of the 100-strong death squad, which also included a Chief Inspector and several other policemen as well as elements of the 6th Infantry Division. The SCAA has since been disarmed and disbanded, though nobody has been punished. AFP spokesman Lt Col Brawner conceded: "We are conducting an investigation as to the involvement of our own men".
Returning to the fray himself, Philip Alston said the Maguindanao atrocity should prompt reflection "on the elite family-dominated manipulation of the political processes and the need to eliminate such practices in order to ensure the future of democracy". Even the ineffectual Commission on Human Rights criticised the slowness of the government to take action.
Putting the best possible spin on the ghastly incident, the International Crisis Group argued at the time that there were "opportunities for new measures in the areas of justice, security and peace". This optimism proved sadly misplaced. Likewise the prophecies of a political settlement between the government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The peace talks are in disarray and Mindanao is more militarised than ever.
Meanwhile, the AFP has been deployed to quell mounting social unrest. There are currently thousands of internal evacuees sheltering in makeshift camps throughout Maguindanao alone. Lack of leadership and an absence of political will has led to increasing violence across the island. The occupying army acts with impunity, hamletting villages, converting more and more schools into barracks, and imposing its own repressive peace program on a sullen and frightened populace.
The armed forces are at war against groups which seek to teach communities to fight for their rights — and increasingly to defend the environment against incursions of government and big business. Such groups are usually branded as communist-controlled; their leaders are frequently the victims of extra judicial killings.
Much-beloved Italian missionary priest Fausto Tentorio, PIME, was the head of Tribal Filipino, an organisation run by the local Catholic Church which has been vigorously resisting the efforts of Xstrata and Sagittarius Mines to introduce open-pit mining into the fragile and threatened forests of central Mindanao. On the morning of 17 October, Fr Tentorio was gunned down outside his church in the heavily militarised Arakan Valley.
Australia’s role in such horrors needs to be exposed. Our aid is increasingly being linked to the activities of mining companies and agribusiness operations as well as to counter-insurgency activities too often aimed at dispossessing tribal communities and clearing oil and mineral-rich lands for corporate acquisition.
Australia’s main aid initiatives include the Basic Education Assistance for Mindanao (BEAM) project, which includes literacy-numeracy schools for indigenous peoples. These have been very successful, but the AFP is suspicious of them and paramilitary groups like the Wild Dogs and Bagani Force (which murdered Fr Tentorio) have been established under the National Internal Security Program. Such brutal vigilantes do great harm; two BEAM-funded primary schools in northern Mindanao were recently destroyed by the army and several people were killed.
Military aid remains the most shameful aspect of our involvement. Australian officials have been quite willing to assist the AFP despite the protests of academics, unions, NGOs and a host of other experts. Training in human rights along with programs in professionalising this organisation are constantly trotted out as excuses for the bipartisan support Canberra has provided for the AFP as far back as the Marcos years.
We also contribute to lethal American counter-insurgency efforts known collectively as Foreign Internal Defense, working up close with the most compromised elements of the AFP — and training many AFP officers in Australia.
Such violence underwrites and maintains a complicated balance of power which has been imposed on Mindanao. Terrorised communities are compelled to seek protection from warlords, compromising their freedom and wellbeing along the way.
Two hundred culprits have been charged in relation to the massacre but legal proceedings are slow. Significant political, cultural, and socio-economic progress has not taken sufficient root as yet — but the process is underway.
Many media groups have called for 23 November will become International Day to End Impunity. Converting gestures into policy is another matter, however. Reforms are only being achieved gradually and 58 massacre victims still await justice.
These people died for the cause of free elections and the fact that former president Arroyo was charged with electoral fraud last Friday is the most promising sign of change in the whole two years since gunfire and screams erupted in the jungles of central Mindanao.
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