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Clan Wars: Some Reflections on the Ampatuan Massacre and the “Anarchy of Families” in the Philippines

Clan Wars: Some Reflections on the Ampatuan Massacre and the “Anarchy of Families” in the Philippines

Jan 14, 2012

Clan Wars: Some Reflections on the Ampatuan Massacre and the “Anarchy of Families” in the Philippines

by Aya Fabros

The Ampatuan massacre, its brutality, gravity and scale, continues to grip the nation. As it provoked outrage and condemnation, it prompts various sectors to escalate the demand for justice; and presents yet another occasion for nuanced public reflection and collective reckoning.

The slaughter that took place in Ampatuan is considered unprecedented—not only for claiming so many lives, 57 and counting, but also for the manner by which it was carried out and the many implications and contradictions that this atrocious act compels us to confront.

Discussions surrounding this event speak of how the rules of ‘rido’ have been breached, citing how women are supposed to be exempt from violent clashes between clans; decrying how the media was not spared, elaborating on the repercussions on press freedom and democracy at large. Reports note how Mindanao has become the Philippine equivalent of the wild, wild West: an unrestrained county of warlords, given absolute dominion over their precious turfs, where they can do—and get away with—anything they please. Statements have been issued about a disturbing environment of impunity and the disconcerting indications that the current administration has no interest, capacity nor will to hold the perpetrators accountable.

How do we begin to grapple with such an incomprehensible abomination? Rather than simply viewing this as a bizarre local incident that’s a product of a given moment (elections), it’s important to also situate what happened in Ampatuan within its larger context, certainly without intending to disregard the many different dimensions that have already been raised.

Part of what I’m picking up, part of what I’m concerned about is the way the Ampatuan massacre can be reduced, dismissed or even distanced from the day-to-day realities we experience. Because it took place in Mindanao, it may be dismissed as just another Muslim brawl, playing up the supposed ‘Muslim’ propensity to violence and barbarism. Because it took place in Maguindanao, the massacre may be considered an isolated, remote incident, far from all of us, and what we hold dear. Because it took place in the run up to 2010, and since the victims were on their way to file certificates of candidacies, the incident may be reduced to being yet another case of election-related violence, which happens every time anyway, so what’s new. ‘Sa Mindanao lang naman yan’ or ‘muslim kasi, eleksyon kasi…’

And yet the Ampatuan massacre merely demonstrates an exaggerated hyperbole of Philippine politics, revealing the savagery that underpins our supposedly sophisticated democratic processes and structures.

Let me take off from what others have already said. Maguindanao is simply a reflection of what is happening across the archipelago. For starters, warlordism and clan conflicts are not the exclusive franchise of Muslims in Mindanao. It persists in the country, in places like Ilocos, Abra and Masbate, to name a few. Although these incidents appear to happen more frequently and at a more extreme extent in places like Ampatuan, the conditions that allow political clans like the Ampatuans to brazenly gun down opponents, their supporters and allies, should also be linked to how politics is played out in the country as a whole.

Many analysts and academics have written about this, describing Philippine politics, its dysfunctional democracy and state, as elite democracy dominated by a few families that sustain their hold on to power through a combination of patronage, economic power, coercion and violence. Alfred Mc Coy’s characterization, Anarchy of Families, Sidel’s notion of Bossism and Quimpo’s recasted view of a ‘predatory regime’ are particularly instructive, in showing the enmeshed and entrenched family interests that link the persistence of local clans, such as the Ampatuans, to the perpetuation of national players like the Arroyos. The shared interests, patronage and transactional politics that bring together the Ampatuans, the Arroyos, along with other local and national clans in between, provide the engine that drives national trapo politics, which in turn defines Philippine democracy.

In Crisis and Change, the Focus on the Philippines 2008 Yearbook, Nathan Quimpo wrote about how clans like the Ampatuans play a key role in determining national electoral outcomes, highlighting how places like ‘far-flung’ Maguindanao actually serve as the ‘national center for electoral fraud.’ Scandals like Hello Garci coincide with landslide victories for Mrs. Arroyo in 2004 and the 12-0 administration slate sweep in 2007.

In return, as seen in the 2005 ARMM elections, “with full presidential backing, Muslim Mindanao has been turned over from the MNLF to powerful political clans and warlords. Zaldy Ampatuan, the son of Muslim Mindanao’s top warlord Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan, is the current governor of the ARMM… He was recently reelected ARMM Governor by a wide, wide margin… In the patronage game, the ARMM has become the reward to valuable sevices provided to the Great Patroness in Imperial Manila, especially those who served her well in the 2004 and 2007 elections,” writes Quimpo. (2008:148)

As such, it’s been said that the Ampatuans are lording it over Maguindanao and ARMM with the ‘blessings’ of the Palace. In 2008, PCIJ’s Jaileen Jimeno reported that: “political analysts trace the clan’s formidable clout to two main factors: guns and the blessings of Malacanang. They even note that no less than the Palace made it legal for the Ampatuans to have hundreds of armed men and women under their employ.

The 1987 Constitution bans private armed groups. In July 2006, however, the Arroyo administration issued Executive Order 546, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers” in the fight against insurgents. In practice, the EO allows local officials to convert their private armed groups into legal entities with a fancy name: civilian volunteer organizations (CVO).”

Having said this, it’s important to stress that this ‘Anarchy of Families’ does not only involve the likes of the Arroyos and the Ampatuans. This anarchy and the atrocities it gives birth to come in various forms, at times horrifying and despicable such as the mass murder in Maguindanao, but more often subtle and insidious.

When I speak of this ‘anarchy of families’, I’m talking about the way the whole country has been cut up and parceled out to a select number of political clans who consider their bailiwicks as their own personal enclaves. I’m talking about how lawlessness in places like Maguindanao is nourished and taken advantage of by local power brokers and national political elites. I’m talking about how the state has been hijacked by a few families, who consider its resources and powers– including government positions, funds, public programs, projects and contracts– as part of the family estate that can be handed out, divided up, inherited and/or settled, all according to the private interest of its members. I’m talking about this interlinked web of warlords, landlords, patrons and bosses that defines how the whole country is run.

Although it is not driven by coercion or violence, and taking alignments aside, I find it similarly disturbing that main players in the 2010 elections belong to political clans; that two of the more prominent presidentiables, Gilbert Teodoro and Noynoy Aquino, are cousins; that Noynoy Aquino is the son of a former president, that Mar Roxas is a grandson of another former president; in the same way that Gloria Arroyo is the daughter of a former president. “Along with the division of lands and jewels, families often try to apportion candidacies for provincial or municipal offices among their heirs, sometimes producing intense conflicts over this intangible legacy,” says Alfred Mc Coy. (1993, 2009: 8 )

To my mind, the deplorable act of murdering opponents to demonstrate the Ampatuan’s formidable hold over their turf (and their capacity to carry out and get away with such violence because they’re in cahoots with lowlife in high places) and the over-stretched smiles of next-in-line candidates– the sons/daughters/wives/husbands-of, beaming from the common knowledge that the elections has been decided even before they ran — brandished on tarpaulins across the country, can also be rooted in the same ethos. Whether they command votes through patronage or fear, whether they run unopposed after compromise-politicking/wheeling-and-dealing or through mass murder, whether they win through vote-buying or regular, excessive campaigning, whether they are benevolent or brute, these little Arroyos, little Ampatuans, little Dazas and little Belmontes– born with silver-spoons in their mouths and a ready seat in government — nonetheless point to chronic failures of a warped and degenerating system. These illustrate, in varying degree, how political clans continue to lord it over their private enclaves, how political positions are deemed family heirlooms that can be handed down from generation to generation (OR ELSE), how deeply-entrenched clan politics continues to fester, whether you are in Maguindanao or Manila.

I find all these related and reinforcing each other, giving rise to reified political practices and perspectives that are, for me, equally atrocious, absurd and condemnable.

By saying this, I do not wish to divert attention from the heinous crime that has been committed or the demand for justice that definitely needs to be fulfilled. I just want to point out related conditions and intertwined contradictions that I hope we do not overlook. We must problematize how to dismantle complex structures of warlordism and confront historic tensions, violent dynamics in provinces like Maguindanao. But we should not stop here.

Can our rage and resolve constitute initial steps toward putting in place conditions for more thoroughgoing social transformation? Or will we simply ‘move on’ from this, like we always do; yield to yet another accommodated episode that would restore and reinforce this dysfunctional political system, which has been impervious to more radical, systemic changes that this historical juncture is crying out for?

 (Published in: Focus on the Philippines December 2009, http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/361/52/)

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