An exemplar of impunity
It’s difficult to believe that in just two months’ time we will be observing the second anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre. The term and the occasion conjure images of those days of shock, grief and outrage after it was learned that 58 people, including 32 media folk, were stabbed and gunned down in the hillsides outside Ampatuan town in Maguindanao.
Judging from the amount of heat generated by the coverage and the commentary, one would have thought the arrest and trial of members of the Ampatuan clan, the prime suspects in the massacre, would have proceeded apace, that justice would be dealt swiftly and surely and that we would all soon move on and focus on other deaths, other killings.
But the case went to trial only last June, with the Supreme Court itself predicting that the trial would last for up to two years, although judging from the length of time it took for bail hearings to proceed, that seems a most optimistic timeline. Sen. Joker Arroyo once commented that with over 100 accused, the Maguindanao Massacre trial might last “for 200 years.” Realistic then is the assessment made by legal authorities quoted in the ANC documentary “58” that the trial could very well outlast the lifetimes of all involved.
Aired on the first anniversary of the massacre, “58” courted controversy by its very title, since most reports say the count of fatalities is “only” 57. But they fail to take into account the 58th victim: photojournalist Reynaldo “Bebot” Momay whose body has yet to be found but whose teeth, jacket and identity card were found onsite. “Do I have to go berserk before they count him?” demands Momay’s daughter, who can only grieve before a muddy hole in the ground which marks the common grave from where many bodies were dug up.
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A video copy of “58” is among the items found in a press kit distributed as part of the “Tukayo” campaign, a public awareness drive meant to drum up public interest in and support for the campaign against impunity, especially with regard to official action (or lack of it) on extrajudicial killings.
“Tukayo” is a Filipino term for someone who shares the same first name as you, calling attention to the fact that many of those who have disappeared or have been killed are “just like you and me.” These are ordinary men, women and youth who may share not just a common first name with many Filipinos, but also similar life circumstances, beliefs and dreams, and the same human rights. If so many of them were forcibly disappeared, tortured and killed, then anyone could be a victim.
And as far as extrajudicial killings go, the Maguindanao massacre must surely count as the exemplar, the most extreme, shocking, and stunning example not just because of the number of victims, but also because of the impunity with which it was carried out, and the apparent consent (or at least indifference) of duly constituted authorities to its planning, execution and attempted cover-up.
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I’ll be writing about extrajudicial killings and impunity in later columns, but for now, the Maguindanao massacre – so horrific its details failed to sink in during the immediate aftermath – deserves another look.
“58” is a documentary produced by ABS-CBN’s ANC in partnership with The Asia Foundation and the Canadian Embassy. Directed and edited by Kiri Dalena and written, produced and narrated by Patricia Evangelista, it features interviews with the families of the massacre victims, video footage shot in the minutes and hours immediately after the crime, and scenes from past massacres and the hearings of the Ampatuan clan members.
At once, the numbers come alive. Parents, siblings and children of the victims talk before the camera, many of them struggling bravely to hold back their tears or their rage. Now Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu, whose plan to have his female relatives and a delegation of media file his certificate of candidacy sparked the ambush, kidnap and mass killing, is filmed visiting the site of the massacre for the first time. He is all business until he begins talking about his wife who led the delegation and who, it seems, was singled out for abuse. “Grabe ang ginawa nila sa kanya (It’s terrible what they did to her),” the governor says, his voice breaking. “Seventeen ang sugat, sinaksak sa likod, sa suso, sa ari (She bore 17 wounds, and was stabbed in the back, in the breast and in her genitals).”
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What seems clear is that the Maguindanao massacre was just part of a pattern of impunity that has persisted through 40 years of insurgency and political violence but has escalated in the last decade.
“58” puts the number of extrajudicial killings committed in the last 10 years alone at 2,000, with 107 journalists (including the 32 media in the Maguindanao massacre) among them.
In exchange for political support (and connivance in cheating), the Arroyo regime allowed the Ampatuan clan to convert their private armies into Cafgus, creating a mercenary force loyal to the Ampatuans but enjoying official recognition, arms and funds. It’s therefore not too farfetched to assume that if “political will” and action against private armies and illegal detention, torture and killings had been applied many years ago, then the Maguindanao massacre might not have taken place.
But it did, and we as a nation are still waiting for closure. We wait not just for the swift and just conclusion of the entire heinous episode, but also for an end to the widespread violations of human rights that are still taking place, even under a new president. We wait for an end to impunity, we wait for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, we wait for the time when the Philippines need no longer apologize about its state of human rights.
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