Lessons from the Maguindanao massacre

It has been two years since the gruesome mass murder that took place on a lonely dirt road in Maguindanao shook and awakened us to the terrifying reality of local warlords who conduct themselves as if they were beyond the reach of the law. Were it not for the fact that the majority of the victims were media people, the case against the Ampatuans might not have reached the courts. Despite the ruthless manner in which the Mangudadatu women were killed, it is not unlikely that the perpetrators of this crime would have succeeded in localizing the conflict and eventually settling it according to customary rules.

Indeed, the initial reports on the incident hinted at a clan war between the entrenched Ampatuans and the gritty Mangudadatus. But there was no clan war here, no rido between feuding clans. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, the head of the Mangudadatu family, was a subaltern, a relative, an ally of the Ampatuans.  The conflict began when he told the Ampatuan patriarch that he was eyeing the governorship of the province. As it turned out, another Ampatuan son, Datu Unsay Ampatuan, had already lined up to succeed his brother, Zaldy, the incumbent governor.

In lieu of political parties, we have rival political clans in the Philippines, or rival members of the same clan, who alternate with one another in wielding governmental power. National politicians who command a lot of resources typically strive to bring them together under a common banner, working out an arrangement where everyone gets something. If Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had intervened to tame the arrogance of her Ampatuan cronies, perhaps there would have been no massacre.  The governorship would have passed on to Toto Mangudadatu, or he could have been made to defer his ambition and wait till the next election.

But In November 2009, Arroyo was preoccupied with other things. Her presidency was coming to an end, and she was busy preparing for her own unprecedented run as representative of Pampanga’s second district. Unlike in previous elections, Maguindanao was farthest from her mind. Her party’s presidential candidate, Gilbert Teodoro, was scoring very low in pre-election surveys, a casualty of the public’s disaffection with the GMA administration. The decent Gibo had no access to the kind of public resources that Arroyo used without scruples in both the 2004 and 2007 elections. Thus, he was in no position to take on the kingpin role that Gloria had so masterfully played for nine years in the realm of local politics.

Without a patron in Manila, the Ampatuans knew that it was even more imperative for them to consolidate their hold on Maguindanao. They were not interested in Teodoro, who clearly favored Mangudadatu. Their tight grip on Maguindanao politics, as proven by their capacity to deliver blocks of crucial votes, made them think that, regardless of who was president in Malacañang, the nation’s politicians would have no choice but to seek their support.  In turn, they expected to be shielded from any accountability by those they helped.

This accounts for the aura of impunity that one instantly senses in the demeanor of the cocky Datu Unsay Ampatuan. The man is obviously not used to being restrained by the law.  Where he comes from, his family was the law-giver and he saw himself as its principal executioner. So firm was the clan’s hold on Maguindanao that they had the gall to name the towns over which they ruled after themselves. The question is: how could a supposedly modern state such as the Philippines allow one clan not only to reserve positions in government to themselves but also to routinely manipulate the nation’s electoral process? The voting patterns coming out of the various municipalities of the province every election year were so statistically improbable that anyone in the Commission on Elections with a little integrity would have nullified them.

But, unless we know how the nation’s politicians rely on local warlords to secure their own interests, we may never understand how a local clan led by a patriarch who can neither read nor write can be left alone to rule an entire province with impunity. The Ampatuans represent only the most extreme form of warlordism. All over the country, there are families like them who have controlled the levers of local politics across generations. Their scions today might be more educated and more polished, but they are no less inclined to use coercion and violence to achieve their goals.

All this, fortunately, is starting to change. As our country enters modernity, our institutional system becomes increasingly differentiated internally. Law emerges as an autonomous system, differentiated from politics, family, religion, and other ties. And so, it no longer matters, for instance, whether the Mangudadatus and the Ampatuans eventually come together and decide to amicably settle their differences.  The ensuing peace, which is the goal of customary law, will not moot the case. Modern law goes beyond the settlement of disputes. Its principal function is to stabilize our notions of what is legal and illegal.

Viewed from this perspective, we may begin to understand why modern legal proceedings are weighed down by procedural technicalities that often delay the practical administration of justice. Every decision on a case in effect creates the rules by which society immunizes itself against future conflicts. We have just begun to take the law seriously. We must be patient.