Politics devolves into blood sport in Philippines

By Chico Harlan
Monday, October 25, 2010

MAGUINDANAO, PHILIPPINES - Lt. Col. Benedict Arevalo headed to a ramshackle town hall one afternoon last week to join about 100 local candidates who had gathered to sign an agreement promising not to kill one another in the final days of campaigning before local elections Monday.

About 70 percent of the population owns guns here on the Philippines' main southern island of Mindanao, and politics seems a lot like combat, as candidates from feuding families and clashing religions battle for even the smallest chunks of power. For decades, the Philippine army had crafted its own alliances, picking sides in the political fights rather than refereeing them, and Arevalo represented the military's new push for neutrality.

Arevalo, assigned to this bloody section of the Philippines in December, describes his territory as "lawless." Its challenges, which include an Islamic rebel group (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF), have prompted the United States to station troops in Mindanao since 2002. Mindanao's endemic corruption also threatens a central campaign pledge of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who took office in May promising to break off the cozy government-clan friendships that thrived under predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Local elections, Arevalo knew, would reawaken skepticism about the military's ability to step away from its own history. At the peace signing Thursday, he had the chance to defuse some of those doubts.

In November 2009, several members of Mindanao's mightiest political family, the Ampatuans, orchestrated the massacre of 57 people - friends and supporters of a rival politician, as well as at least 30 journalists. A subsequent discovery lent credence to the widespread claims that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the national police had favored the Ampatuans, willing to overlook their misdeeds as long as they helped in the fight against the MILF. According to a government report, weapons used in the massacre had been originally licensed to the army and police.

One month after the slaughter, the army called for a complete personnel overhaul, part of an effort to uproot corruption. That's how Arevalo, commander of the 29th Infantry Battalion, came to Maguindanao, the province where the massacre took place.

"We want to remove the AFP from the warring families and take a more objective position," said Col. Mayoralgo De La Cruz, whose 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade also patrols the area. "As much as possible, we are not taking sides."

The government in Manila has tried to ensure safe elections, setting up checkpoints throughout the country to clamp down on illegal guns and banning liquor sales the day before the vote. In Mindanao, though, the partial downfall of the Ampatuan clan opened a power vacuum. Of the Philippines' 42,025 townships (or "barangays"), the government had designated 2,655 hot spots where violence was likely. More than half were in Mindanao.

During his three-mile trip to the peace signing, Arevalo, riding in an eight-vehicle convoy, scanned both sides of the road, pointing to buildings carved by old firefights. He talked about this lush island's warring factions as if describing a headache that cannot be relieved: The government battles the MILF rebels, leaving the cease-fire as mere rhetoric. Families take sides, building their own guerrilla groups. The government favors particular families, allowing them to stockpile arms to fight the rebels. Families without government support grow resentful, forming alliances with the rebels.

It's a decades-old struggle. Arevalo's father, a former military official, spent the 1970s trying to negotiate peace here. Muslims settled the area well before the Spaniards' arrival in the 16th century, and they outlasted American control at the turn of the 20th century, becoming a minority only in the 1960s, when the Manila government pushed for Christian resettlement in Mindanao. Though the Philippines in 1996 granted the Muslims an autonomous region, the MILF seeks more land.

"Over there, that's MILF territory," Arevalo said, pointing to his left. "We're talking by the thousands. They're just one kilometer away. We do not go to those areas."

At the town hall, about 200 local residents and small-time politicians passed through an entrance gate, guarded by a dozen soldiers. Local election official Norhda Dipatuan introduced the peace agreement "in the name of Allah, most gracious and merciful."

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