Nalzaro: Are political reforms in order?

Bobby Nalzaro

WILL the conviction of the members of the once powerful and influential political clan involved in the Maguindanao massacre start a new phase in the country’s political and social reforms aside from crushing private armies? An international group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the government to use the conviction of the principal accused in the Maguindanao massacre to initiate these reforms.

HRW deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said “advocates should use the verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for too long. More broadly, the verdict should prompt the country’s political leaders to finally act to end state support for private armies and militia that promotes the political warlordism that gave rise to the Ampatuans.”

Three members of the Ampatuan clan, Datu Unsay former mayor Andal Jr.; Zaldy, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao; and Anwar Sr., were convicted for masterminding the killings of 58 people, including 32 media personalities, on Nov. 24, 2009 in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao. Other clan members and their followers were acquitted. Their patriarch, Andal Sr., died in prison while the case was still being tried in the sala of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Jocelyn Solis-Reyes after the Supreme Court ordered the case transferred to Metro Manila to ensure the security of witnesses and private and public prosecutors.

The victims, mostly supporters of the Ampatuans’ political rival and now Maguindanao Gov. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, were on their way to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy in Buluan town as governor, challenging Andal Jr., when they were intercepted, abducted and killed by the Ampatuans’ armed men led by Andal Jr. Some of them were buried alive. There were also innocent people who were included as they happened to pass by the crime scene when the massacre happened. The Maguindanao massacre was described as the worst political related violence in the country.

The statement of Robertson is “easier said than done.” But it is not possible if we have to strengthen and put teeth to our laws in the political and judicial system. Congress should pass first the anti-dynasty law, which bans political clans from perpetuating in power for many years. It must come up with heavier penalty like death for violators of the law. Then legislate a law to put an end to political patronage and then use the police and military and other government law enforcement agencies to dismantle private armies.

When President Duterte assumed power in 2016, he warned politicians against forming private armies. He vowed to deploy the police and military to dismantle private armed groups created by candidates. But until now, nothing has happened and warlordism is still prevalent, especially in Mindanao.

The political situation in Mindanao and other remote areas in the country is quite different from the rest of the country, especially in urban areas like Metro Cebu. There, political warlordism still exists. Politicians still use the “3 Gs” of politics: guns, gold and goons. If a politician does not have these kinds of “political war chest,” he is nothing. You have money to buy votes. You have loyal armed followers to coerce and intimidate your opponents and willing to kill if necessary.

That was the status of the Amputuans when they were still in power. They also had the full political backing of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration at that time because the former President had relied on the support of the Ampatuans’ political strength in their area. The Ampatuans and their supporters could easily muster a “zero vote” for their opponents because they had political control. Imagine the late Fernando Poe Jr., the opponent of Arroyo in the 2004 presidential elections, heavily lost in Maguindanao, a Muslim-dominated area. Our brother Muslims are FPJ fanatics. And do you still remember the “Hello, Garci” scandal when Arroyo talked to former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to order Maguindanao election supervisor Lintang Bedol to manipulate the results of the elections in her favor?

The decision convicting the Ampatuans and their henchmen was a “sweet victory” for the relatives of the victims. Let’s hope this will trigger political and social reforms.