The worst episode of election-related violence in our history, the deadliest single assault on the media recorded in the world, the most brutal display of impunity in memory—and yet three years after the horrific massacre in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao, the powerful family that ordered it has not only successfully delayed criminal conviction, it also remains very much a political force in the province.
Nothing prevents the Ampatuan family from contesting political office in the province they call their own, of course; that is within their right (even if the massacre’s immediate cause was the family’s attempt to prevent other candidates from exercising that same right). But should other politicians help entrench the Ampatuans in a position where they can escape full responsibility for the massacre?
The ruling Liberal Party sees itself as the party of reform. But what principle of reform politics allows the LP to field nine Ampatuans in six local races? According to the PCIJ, two clan members are running for mayor, one for vice mayor, and six for councilor—all under the LP flag. And according to Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, these Ampatuans are nothing like the leaders of the family who have been prosecuted for masterminding the massacre.
That may well be, but Mangudadatu, whose own wife and sister perished in the mass killings, is missing the point. The first step in ensuring that the shocking events of Nov. 23, 2009, will not happen again is to remove the Ampatuan family from political power—not to reward those members who failed to stop the massacre or (and this is a point often conveniently forgotten) who failed to stop other excesses committed by the family since at least 2001.
By following Mangudadatu’s lead, President Aquino’s own party has now allowed the Aquino and Ampatuan names to be linked under the damning label of political convenience. People will ask: What, really, is the difference between the President’s cousin, Bam Aquino, and, say, Sarip Kasan Ampatuan, who is running for mayor (against another Ampatuan!)? They are both running because they belong to the “right” family, and the time is opportune.
But if the LP is to be scorned, Vice President Jejomar Binay’s United Nationalist Alliance must be condemned. According to the same PCIJ report, UNA is fielding 34 Ampatuans for various offices in Maguindanao—including the wives of two of the principal suspects in the massacre: Zaldy, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Andal Jr., the former mayor of Datu Unsay.
UNA sees itself as the party of competence, because of Binay’s lengthy stint as mayor of Makati, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s lengthy resumé and deposed President Joseph Estrada’s lengthy, uh, acting career. In what possible universe can the Ampatuan family be considered avatars of competence?
That the ARMM is, in the words of President Aquino, a “failed experiment,” tells us all we need to know about Zaldy, the clan’s fair-haired boy. That Maguindanao was one of the worst-run provinces in the country during Andal Sr.’s long reign cannot be proof of competence. Unless, of course, UNA is interested in another kind of competence.
Without a doubt, the Ampatuans know how to manufacture election results, something ex-president Gloria Arroyo knows well. But then again UNA is fielding Juan Miguel Zubiri, one of the beneficiaries of Ampatuan competence, in its Senate slate; perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at UNA’s unprincipled pragmatism.
But the symbiotic relationship between local elites and national politicians is precisely one of the reasons why the witnesses, the victims’ families and the loyal lawyers prosecuting the case continue, not only to worry about the trial’s outcome, but also to fear for their safety. They know, because they have seen it for themselves, that political power breeds money, and money buys not only armies but time itself, and time is their enemy.
One does not need to be a lawyer to know that the Ampatuans’ best legal strategy is to wear out the prosecution: to see more witnesses fall to sudden illness or even more sudden death, to see the victims’ families consume themselves in endless worry and constant expense, to see political expediency slowly but surely trump evidence. How can the political parties not know that support for Ampatuan candidates feeds the very impunity that led to the massacre?