Justice in Maguindanao, Justice for All

Violence in elections is a paradox. Election is supposed to be a peaceful means to resolve contestation for power, yet in the Philippines it has become a reason for the use of violence. It is supposed to be a means for consensus and to uphold the democratic rights of citizens to participate directly in governance, however in our country it has sowed fear and divisiveness and resulted in violation of human rights. 

The massacre in Maguindanao that killed more than 50 people, most of whom women, is the most gruesome case of election-related violence in the country. It is considered the worst attack to free media and has earned us the title of the most dangerous place for journalists in the world. Lawyers, whose kingdom is the word and not the sword, were also targeted. Even bystanders and those passing by were not spared. 

The perpetrators did not kill one or two people running for office; they killed 59 (and perhaps some more) who were relatives and supporters of the prospective candidate, their lawyers and media men and women who were supposed to cover the story. The murderers did not simply shoot their targets, the victims were abducted by about a hundred heavily armed men—some were raped, some were tortured, and some were buried alive. The executioners did not attack clandestinely; apparently premeditated, the targets were abducted on the way to a local Commission on Elections office to file the Certificate of Candidacy of their candidate who decided to oppose a long-standing political dynasty in Maguindanao.

The message of the perpetrators of this heinous act was crystal clear and they communicated it so well with a bang: “We have the power. No one messes with us.” It is arrogance of power at its worst form. For someone or a group to easily disregard the law, government and public accountability, it only means one thing: they know they can get away with it unscathed. For something as gruesome as this massacre to happen in a country which considers itself as democracy, it proves how feeble and unreliable are the institutions that protect and defend the rights of people and how skewed is the political power in society. 

The cases of election-related violence (ERV) are not new in the Philippines. It is almost as regular as the conduct of elections. ERV incidents usually happen six months before and six months after elections in areas that are considered hotspots such as Maguindanao.

Since 2001, official record states that there are 181 consistent election hotspots. Election hotspots are categorized as election areas of concern (EAC) and election areas of immediate concern (EIAC). EAIC are towns, cities or municipalities where election-related violence are highly expected to occur, while EAC are areas where election-related violence are likely to occur or where election-related offenses were committed during the previous elections.

In the 2004 elections, the PNP reported 249 cases of election-related violence that left 41 politicians killed and 18 others wounded. A total of 229 cases of election-related violence were reported in the 2007 elections, leaving 37 killed and 24 others wounded. From January to May 2009, the PNP has recorded a total of 52 cases of election-related violence.

In a study on election-related violence in Abra, currently being undertaken by the Ateneo School of Government through its Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) program, the prevalence of election-related violence in Abra is caused by several inter-related factors that are institutional, politico-economic and socio-cultural. (A similar study on Nueva Ecija is still awaiting results.)

Preliminary and relevant findings on the ASoG Study on Abra ERV show that ERV happens because State institutions are too weak to prevent it. The long hold to power of few political families and their use of arms have enabled them to build reliable machinery for control and monopoly of power that penetrates the State and societal spheres. There is also a clear consent from the national, with the ones occupying Malacañang having close working relationship with the local political families. National agencies and national civil society have largely been negligent of the local ERV situation, with unclear goals and objectives vis-à-vis the said problem. 

Because power is concentrated and accountability is weak, there is rampant corruption in government, economic resources have largely been concentrated and the people have remained largely impoverished. Abra, for instance, remains one of the poorest provinces in the country, and so is Maguindanao. 

All of these happen with a culture that is seemingly conducive to violence as a backdrop. It is a culture that says the use of violence is justifiable; a culture that has low regard for life; a culture that regards violence as normal. You have people who are dependent on the actions of the government and have very low expectations from the government. 

The condition of Maguindanao, if compared to Abra, is perhaps more complicated given the long-standing wars between the government and the secessionist and revolutionary groups such as the MILF, including problem on terrorism given the presence of Abu Sayaff. ERV in Maguindanao is violence happening within a state of war. 

However, it is problematic to yet again subsume ERV in Maguindanao as part and parcel of the Moro’s self-determination issue. Like ERV in other areas such as Abra, ERV in Maguindanao follows the same basic characteristics: presence of long-standing political families that have used violence to stay in power and are protected by politicians at the national who in turn benefit from the pockets of authoritarian rule in the countryside. 

For the longest time, ERV has been a local issue that concerns local constituency who are largely disempowered vis-à-vis their armed political leaders who sow fear and violence to remain in office. For the longest time, the national (both the government and the civil society) consented to pockets of violence happening in these authoritarian enclaves. 

It ends now. It must end now.

Paradoxically, the Maguindanao Massacre gives the country a unique opportunity to address a long-time problem that was not a monopoly of one region or ethnic community. With this massacre, we crossed the line and the country is now on the brink of being a failed state. With this massacre, we are seeing a scale of brutality and evil that we have not seen before. We have seen political and media assassinations and we have experienced massacres of farmers and workers – but not with these targets (women, lawyers, journalists, bystanders and passersby) and not in these numbers. Lines were crossed in Maguindanao and we must all work together, and work very hard, to pull the country back from those lines. Otherwise, the consequences are unimaginable with political clans all over the country possibly believing that they too can act with impunity.

More than ever, there is a call for swift, decisive and massive action by the authorities to bring everyone responsible to justice. There is a call to strengthen democracy not only in the center, but in the entire country. More than ever, we need national and local leaders that have the courage to speak truth to power and who can effectively deliver the basic services of jobs, food, health, education and a sound environment to their communities. More than ever, elections must be reclaimed as a political instrument for peace, not a reason for violence. More than ever, human rights for all must be protected and peace must reign in all parts of the Philippines. More than ever, we are called to be Filipinos caring for our fellow Filipinos and working to build a strong, peaceful and democratic nation. For none of us can fully enjoy democracy, human rights and peace if there are areas where repression, oppression and violence prevail. And only when we start working for democracy and peace for all as one people that election-related violence in the country stops. 

We end this reflection with a personal note. In recent months, because of our work, both of us had the chance to travel to the great and magnificent land of Cotabato, now divided into a number of provinces. Like every place in our country, we both were struck by the beauty of the land and the spirit of its peoples. We are confident that the peoples of Cotabato will overcome this tragedy. But for that, there must be Justice in Maguindanao, and Justice for all.