Massacre probe a final integrity test for Arroyo
The massacre of 57 people in a Muslim-dominated province of the southern Philippines leaves Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with a political and moral dilemma: how strongly will she go after the killers when those who allegedly ordered the massacre were her political allies? Even as Arroyo vowed to round up the perpetrators, that central question permeates a case that confirms the sense of 'a culture of impunity' against law and order.
The government may have the numbers, in manpower and weaponry, but the record of paramilitary forces collaborating with soldiers and police against political foes and journalist critics does not augur well for this investigation. Last week's massacre, however, was the worst in the Philippines' bloodstained history - an episode so bizarre as to assure it won't be forgotten as easily as so many others over the years.
The killers are alleged to be agents of the mayor of the town of Ampatuan that bears his family's name. Andal Ampatuan Jnr is said to have believed he had little to fear in a campaign to succeed his father, the governor of Maguindanao on the island of Mindanao. The Ampatuan machine guaranteed Arroyo a vast majority in the province in the 2004 presidential election and majorities for her candidates in the 2007 mid-term elections for Congress.
The Ampatuan family is said to have been enraged by a strong challenge from another influential clan leader, Ismael Mangudadatu, vice-mayor of a nearby town, who was determined to campaign for governor despite threats to kill him if he registered as a candidate. Mangudadatu believed he would be safe by having his wife and two sisters, accompanied by political adherents and about 30 journalists, enter his name for him. Gunmen responded by stopping their convoy and herding them to a field where graves had been dug.
Arroyo immediately distanced herself from the Ampatuans, calling the killings 'unconscionable' and declaring no one 'untouchable'. The connection between her regime and the alleged killers, however, became clear when the provincial police chief and other officers, now under arrest, were revealed to have been seen with Ampatuan Jnr. Arroyo has had to compromise with Muslim clan leaders over the years, while her soldiers pursued the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ensconced in remote jungle camps. Ampatuan Jnr, from his prison cell in Manila, has blamed the killings on the MILF.
The crisis in law and order is worsened by the poverty of a rural people subsisting at the mercy of corrupt landlords and greedy officials backed by private armies - a fertile atmosphere for extremist Islamic proselytising. A slim hope for justice, however, lies in the uproar. Arroyo cannot run in next year's elections for another six-year term - and may not feel as obligated as before to the Ampatuans.
Arroyo, in the closing months of her presidency, either seriously battles for justice against political violence - or leaves a legacy of corruption and killing.
Donald Kirk, long-time correspondent in Asia, is author of Looted: The Philippines after the Bases, and Philippines in Crisis: US Power versus Local Revolt