By Jun Mercado, OMI
November 23rd is now etched in the history of the province as the day of shameless ignominy. On that day, a convoy of the women folks of the Mangudadatu clan accompanied by media people and their women lawyers on their way to the Capitol of the Province in Sharif Aguak municipality was stopped by PNP forces with hundreds of armed civilian volunteer organizations (under the command of the PNP) along the national highway in Ampatuan municipality. The convoy was directed to take the farm road leading to a deep hole meant to be the mass grave of the entire members of the convoy and also the other vehicles that happened to follow the convoy.
I am beginning to piece the story of the tragic massacre. It all began about three weeks ago with a COMELEC Resolution directing the transfer of the COMELEC Satellite Office from Cotabato City to the Provincial Capitol in Maguindanao. Then another resolution came directing all candidates in the province to file their certificates of candidacy at the provincial `capitol'. These resolutions looked innocent when read and seen outside the concrete political context in the province.
Anyone in the place knows that the said resolutions follow the logic of the local politics and the control over the COMELEC on the ground. COMELEC cannot feign ignorance of these realities nor washes its hands in the ensuing massacre in Maguindanao. The concrete experiences of 2004 and 2007 elections and the participation of COMELEC in the province are too gross to ignore.
There is a reason and definitely politics in the physical shifting `capitol' sites in the province. There is a need to locate the `capitol' in a place to ensure total control. For this reason, Maguindanao can qualify to put the capitol building on wheels. It began in Cotabato City; then Datu Udtog moved it to Pagalungan; Post Datu Udtog, it was moved back to Cotabato City; then it was moved to Maganoy (Sharif Aguak); Zacaria Candao moved it back to Cotabato City; then he moved it to a new site in Sultan Kudarat. The Ampatuan moved the `capitol' back to Maganoy where it now stands.
The total control of the capitol ensures absolute control over all government machineries in the capitol site, including the COMELEC, PNP and AFP.
Months ago, the buzz in the province and in Cotabato City has been the looming political contest between the Ampatuan clan, the present unquestioned ruler of the Province and the ARMM, and the Mangudadatu clan.
Everybody in town is actually surprised by this challenge coming from the four Mangudadatu young, daring and dazzling brothers (two mayors, one vice mayor and one assemblyman of the Regional Assembly of the ARMM). The leader of the clan and the main challenger is the present Vice Mayor of Buluan, Datu Ismael `Toto' Mangudadatu.
The challenge came as a big surprise, because the Ampatuan clan is `intimately' connected to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Lakas – Kampi – CMD Party both in 2004 and 2007 national elections. The convergence of the political and electoral agenda of Pres. Arroyo and the Ampatuans is well known both in the national and local levels.
The challenge emerged when talks that the `senior' Ampatuan is no longer qualified to run as Governor of the province. The name of the `junior' Ampatuan has begun to surface as the clan bet for what they thought would be uncontested governorship in the province come May 2010.
This development sparked talks and counter-talks of contesting the governorship thus shifting political alliances, especially with the waning of the star of Malacañang and her official candidates.
The relations between President Arroyo and the Ampatuans hinged on a symbiosis of political and electoral interests and as demonstrated by the `outstanding' delivery capacity of the clan in all electoral exercises held in the province of Maguindanao.
When we speak of captive electorate, I refer to `managed' and `owned' elections. Political parties and candidates also refer to the entire ARMM as `captive' electorate. This is not a simple perception but the `actual ballot' counts' attest to this `winner take all' elections. This fact is known also to the COMELEC.
No doubt, if electoral anomalies happen, the people who manage and secure the elections are equally controlled. In most instances, the teachers and officials of the COMELEC, including the PNP have little or no choices at all. Their lives and their families, as well, are in jeopardy.
The COMELEC resolution transferring its satellite office in Sharif Aguak and the requirement to file the certificates of candidacy in the `capitol' is NOT as innocent as it looks unless COMELEC were born yesterday!
This COMELEC decision has forced the Mangudadatu to go into the heartland of the Ampatuan clan. The Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu decided to go and file his certificate of candidacy. But he was prevailed upon by the mother to let the women do the filing. The clan believed that Toto's presence in Aguak may lead to actual bloodshed. The mother and the religious leaders believed that an all-women delegation accompanied by media people and women lawyers would be respected. Islam strongly enjoins believers to respect women and children even during times of war.
As a double insurance for the delegation, the Mangudadatu has asked for police escorts from the PNP Provincial command. It refused to do so. Understanding the perceived partisanship of the Maguindanao PNP, the clan asked for military escort from the 601st Brigade that has an operational responsibility for area. They were told that the AFP does not give escort to politicians. . The clan appealed to the highest military command in the region for a security escort for the women. They were assured by the highest military command that the `road is safe and there will be no need to worry'.
With that assurance, the all-women delegation began the trek to Sharif Aguak. At crossing Salman along the national highway in broad daylight in Ampatuan municipality, the convoy was stopped including the other vehicles accidentally passing by that momentous time by hundreds of armed groups believed to be CVOs that included some officials of the PNP in the province and a local mayor positively identified by the Mangudadatu.
The entire convoy where led to an open pit dug by the provincial engineering equipment. There the carnage began with brutality and no mercy for women, children and the members of the media.
The last vehicle in the convoy, delayed by few minutes, saw the whole gang stopping the convoy and made positive identification. It turned back with speed and asked for help. But alas, the help came too late.
There were no survivors! The first count was 21 fatalities in the afternoon of the same day. These were the bodies left on the ground and in the vehicles because of the haste. The second day, the body count reached 46 as investigators began to dig the mass graves. On the third day, the number has reached more than 60. They were all murdered with so much brutality that can only be compared to victims of savage animals in the wild.
The digging continues and the body counts continue to rise. The Mangudadatu can only account for 40 members of their convoy. Beyond that number were innocents passersby who happened to be traveling the same road at that particular moment. These innocent passersby include children!
They buried the whole vehicles with the murdered passengers. Seemingly, the intent was to bury all the vehicles and all the victims in that big hole dug by the Provincial `backhoe'. But there was news that the troops were coming. This made the perpetrators to hurriedly leave the scene without completing their evil intent.
Today, the people of Maguindanao and Cotabato City are in total disbelief for what they are hearing over the radio as the massacre continues to unfold. They are stunned and shocked! The real word is feeling of revulsion for how things stand in the province and the community.
COMELEC has now allowed filing of candidacy in the City and in Sultan Kudarat without filing for an exception. It has also returned the satellite office in the city. COMELEC shares the blame for this massacre. Ignorance can never be an excuse! It is a very costly political decision!
Knowing the close tie between the President Arroyo and the Ampatuan, the Presidency and the national government are directly held accountable! People ask will there be immediate arrests of the identified perpetrators of the massacre? Three days have passed by and there is not a single arrest made yet...! Will there be honest and objective investigation of the massacre?
While we debate over the massacre, the perpetrators and the hundreds of high powered bearing CVOs and the identified leaders of the massacre roam freely and with impunity. Onli in da Pilipins!