By Artha Kira Paredes, VERA Files
Cotabato City— Social Studies teacher Abunawas Solaiman clearly remembers the 2004 elections because, he said, it was the only time he felt safe serving as a member of the Board of Election Inspectors.
He was then assigned at precinct 21-A in Barangay Katbo, Matanog in Maguindanao, serving alongside a policeman and a marine officer to man the precinct, the year the government allowed members of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Army to serve in the BEIs.
“Walang pumapasok na mga nananakot sa mga guro or doon sa mga bumuboto (No one came inside the voting precinct to intimidate teachers and voters),” recalled Solaiman, president of the Teachers Alliance for Change (TEACH).
Solaiman said many of his fellow teachers have had a close encounter with losing candidates who blame them for unfavorable results. As early as now, media in the region have reported that teachers are hesitant to serve in the elections for fear.
Solaiman told VERA Files after the Tapatan sa ARMM forum at the Office of the Regional Governor Conference Hall Wednesday that his group is recommending the 2004 set up, which he said resulted in the smooth flow of that election.
Such a setup would protect the teachers, Solaiman said. TEACH was organized so that teachers can collectively lobby for their rights.
Ironically, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won the election, the election year that police and army served as BEIs. The election was rife with reports of fraud, the most infamous among them the “Hello Garci” scandal where Arroyo was caught in a tapped phone conversation supposedly asking then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to make sure she won by 1 million votes.
The names of a number of generals were also mentioned in those taped conversations.
Maguindanao votes are said to have contributed to Arroyo’s win, and although there were plans to investigate the cheating there in 2004, nothing came of those plans.
Solaiman, 39, teaches at the Matanog National High School in Maguindanao and began serving in the elections in 1999, when he first started teaching. He acknowledges that Maguindanao played a big role in the Garci scandal and said that at that time members of the Ampatuan family "ay hari sa Maguindanao (kings of Maguindanao)."
He said teachers like him in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) are especially prone to harassments during elections and likens safekeeping the ballots to “protecting a child from kidnappers.”
This responsibility, when it is not carried out, could mean that candidates can file an administrative case against them in court, he said.
ARMM is composed of the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Sulu and the cities of Marawi and Lamitan. Most of the towns in the region are watchlist areas during elections because of the occurrence of election-related violent incidents. In the 2010 polls, a teacher and a school principal were killed after the conduct of the presidential elections.
The region has about 21,000 public school teachers, with more than 800 from Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur counting themselves as members of TEACH, an organization that was only registered under the Security and Exchange Commission last month but which was formed in 2011.
Under the Election Reforms Law of 1987, the BEI should be composed of a chairman and two members “all of whom shall be public school teachers, giving preference to those with permanent appointments.”
The law states that private school teachers, civil service employees or other citizens “of known probity and competence” and are registered employees of the city of municipality may be chosen for election duty should there be a shortage of public school teachers, the law states.
For the 2004 national elections, the Commission on Elections promulgated Resolution 6454 that deputized the Department of National Defense, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Department of Interior and Local Government, the National Police Commission, the Philippine National Police and other law enforcement agencies.
The deputization was to ensure “free, orderly, honest, peaceful and credible conduct” of elections, which to Solaiman was achieved. He said the marine who served as poll clerk in his precinct easily spotted flying voters.
During elections in the ARMM there is a widespread hakot or the practice of politicians providing transportation for hundreds of individuals, some even underage, to vote for them in different precincts.
(ARMM WATCH is a project of VERA Files in partnership with MindaNews and I-Watch. It is supported by The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)