The horrific massacre in the south of the Philippines that targeted and killed 57 of the family members of mayoral candidate Esmael Magundadatu as well as 30 accompanying journalists, has unleashed tensions, heated debates and new political dynamics in the most restive corner of the country.
A region mostly known for its Islamic insurgency, highlighted in our blog in September, was, in one violent act, revealed as a hotbed of clan politics, powerful civilian militias and potentially devastating political alliances that have implicated the highest echelons of the Philippine political establishment, including President Arroyo herself.
While clan politics and the domination of the Ampatuan clan were known within the Philippines- even used by Arroyo in her quest for re-election and against the MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Islamic insurgent group in the south)- the sheer brutality and complexity of the political landscape came as a surprise to the international community in the wake of this brutal attack. But although initial coverage of the massacre was intense and frequent, the aftermath has largely been ignored by the international media, more attuned to human tragedies than complex, hard-to-explain political games fought in a remote part of a distant tropical land.
But it is important to delve deeper into this tragedy and into the conditions that facilitated such a sensless attack on not only the lives, but also the political and civil rights of the southern Filippino population. It is important not only because it says a lot about the stability and maturity of the 12th most populous country in the world, but because it highlights the fragility of the battle in the wider region against militants, clan-based or religious.
As a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial argues, several uncomfortable realities were unearthed as a result of the massacre, chief among them the ability of clans like the Ampatuans to take over and effectively rule an entire region and to create a 4000-strong private army in the process.
The fact that several of the most high profile political posts in the Mindanao region were held by core members of the Ampatuan family should have raised alarm bells in advance of this tragedy. The fact that military arms and equipment had either been lost or sold to the clan in order for them to arm an alternative army in the region under their control should have been cause for further alarm (and pre-emptive political action). But political expediency and unwillingness to crack down on deeply undemocratic clan domination of an important and impoverished region caused Arroyo and her allies to turn a blind eye to a disaster just waiting to happen.
While it is true that a culture of impunity or a history of political violence may not be the making of the Arroyo administration, a misguided approach to the south that bolstered criminal clans and private militias at the expense of real socio-economic and democratic development, created a monster that the government is now desperately trying to reign in.
By refusing to tackle the roots of the Islamic insurgency head on, Arroyo relied on a dangerous proxy while strengthening the most destructive forces in the political culture of the country. Martial law, high-profile prosecutions of the perpetrators or even moves to dismantle the Ampatuan power structures in Mindanao will not go far enough in fixing the damage done by the short-sighted political games of the Arroyo administration.
Economic development, democratization and real peace in the south will have to wait.