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Opening our eyes to impunity

/ 11:39 PM November 22, 2011

Friends have been sending text messages inquiring why this paper’s columnists all have their eyes closed in their photos.

When I point out the boxed message on this page saying, “Some people would rather forget what happened in Maguindanao. We’ve closed our eyes to remember,” and signed by the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP), they express understanding. Reli German, informed of the box message, replied: “I noticed the closed eyes but not the message. I must have had my eyes closed, too.”

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As for myself, all I can say is that now I know what I look like with my eyes closed—or lying in a casket. We were informed about the closed-eyes photos a few days ago, and told that our faces would just be photo-shopped. My only concern was that if there would be an editor’s note to explain our appearance, lest readers think someone was playing a prank.

But our closed eyes are meant to send a message not just of remembering what happened two years ago on this day, but also of reminding authorities not to close their eyes to the “culture of impunity” which gave rise to the massacre.

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It is no accident that most of those killed were journalists. The presence of so many media people, after all, was thought to provide security to the Mangudadatu party, the same way the family believed nobody would dare threaten a group of women since among Muslims women are traditionally treated with respect and decorum.

But as we all know by now, even these precautions proved inutile against arrogance and power, against official indifference and timidity, against impunity.

* * *

BY NOW, too, we know why the Arroyo administration was loath to keep the Ampatuans in check. As Lintang Bedol and even Zaldy Ampatuan attest, the entire Ampatuan machinery in Maguindanao was harnessed to ensure victory for Arroyo and her candidates in 2004 and 2007.

It was this huge debt that gave the Ampatuans leave to massacre their political foes, such that the most that former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro could do, in the face of rumors of the worsening rift, was to warn Mangudadatu about the Ampatuans’ intent to foil his candidacy. Apparently, he could not—or would not—lift a finger to help the former vice mayor or even enforce the law or prevent violence.

Which is why I think it’s only right that, aside from facing charges of electoral fraud and poll manipulation, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo now faces a civil suit filed by the survivors of the massacre victims. For it was her desire to ensure victory at the polls at all costs that put her in debt to the Ampatuans, which in turn gave the Ampatuans the shield of impunity.

And while we columnists have our eyes closed for this anniversary week of the massacre, we surely will keep our eyes open to the existence and persistence of the culture of impunity. We remember the 33 media people who died in Maguindanao, but remember as well the many other journalists who have been killed by people who wanted to silence them and wish they had kept their eyes closed to corruption and venality.

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* * *

OF THE 58 who died in Maguindanao, the fate of Reynaldo Momay must be the bleakest. For what else is there that anyone desires in life but to be remembered and honored in death? But even that small favor has been denied Momay, whose ID as a photographer for the Midland Review and dentures were found at the massacre site, but whose body has yet to be recovered.

And that is why his daughter Reynafe grieves still. Not just for a slain father, but for his death that remains unacknowledged and unrecognized. This means that Reynafe, due to the lack of a death certificate, cannot claim benefits that have been granted to the other families. Whenever she reads accounts that put the number of victims at 57, the wound reopens, laying bare not just the grief and pain of loss, but also the old grievances and hurts.

But Reynafe, despite her exclusion from the “official” roster of survivors, continues to maintain her ties to the families of the other victims. At a press conference called to plan for the observance of today’s anniversary, she spoke of their needs, now that they had lost their primary breadwinners, and of new complications arising from the lavish promises of aid.

Some families, Reynafe shared, have been beset by other relatives who claim they too deserve a share of the “bounty.” This even if some potential donors have not come across with their promises of support.

* * *

LIFE has indeed gone on for the survivors of those killed in the Maguindanao massacre.

For some, especially the children of the media folk, scholarships have been made available to help ensure a better future for their families. Other survivors have availed themselves of support for livelihood projects. While I do believe that a “memorial,” which now stands at the site of the massacre, is fitting to remind everyone about the horrors of impunity, I can’t help but wonder if the funds couldn’t have been put to better use helping the surviving family members. Wouldn’t they have been happier with a more modest memorial?

Still, the best way to help the grieving move on would be to have the legal process, especially the trial of all those involved in the killings particularly the masterminds, proceed apace, as expeditiously as possible. Surely, the slow march to justice cannot but be frustrating and disappointing for everyone concerned, especially since the government had made such a big show of arresting the Ampatuans and presenting them before a court.

Two years on, we are still hearing testimonies and debating issues like bail for the accused, with some of them wanting to turn state witness. Two years on, we are still battling the scourge of impunity.

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TAGS: Ampatuans, impunity, Lintang Bedol, maguindanao massacre, Reynaldo Momay
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