Justice in Maguindanao

  • A group gathers in Mindanao for an Asia Foundation training workshop on mitigating election violence. Photo by Karl Grobl.
    A group gathers in Mindanao for an Asia Foundation training workshop on mitigating election violence. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Election violence is a paradox. Elections are designed to be peaceful means to resolve contestation for power and to uphold the democratic rights of citizens to participate directly in governance. Yet, in the Philippines, elections have increasingly become a reason for the use of violence and have often sowed fear and divisiveness and/or violation of human rights.

The recent and horrifying November 23 massacre in the province of Maguindanao, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, that killed over 50 people, many of them women and including many journalists, is the most gruesome case of election-related violence in the country, and the worst single attack on journalists in history. The event has solidified our ranking as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Even innocent bystanders and those passing by were not spared.

The executioners did not attack clandestinely. In an apparently premeditated move, 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 longstanding political dynasty in Maguindanao. They did not kill one or two people running for office; they killed 59 (perhaps even more) who were relatives and supporters of the prospective candidate, lawyers, and members of the media who were planning to cover the story. The victims were abducted by about a hundred heavily-armed men. Some were raped; some were tortured; some were buried alive.

For something as gruesome as this to happen in a country that considers itself a democracy, it proves how feeble and unreliable the institutions that protect and defend the rights of its people are.

Election-related violence (ERV) is not new in the Philippines. ERV incidents usually happen six months before and six months after elections in areas that are considered hotspots, such as Maguindanao.

Since 2001, official records conclude 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 is strongly expected to occur, while EAC are areas where election-related violence is likely to occur, or where election-related offenses were committed during the previous elections.

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

According to a current study on election-related violence in Abra province on the northern island of Luzon, conducted by the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) with funding from The Asia Foundation, the prevalence of ERV in Abra is caused by several inter-related factors that are political, economic, socio-cultural, and institutional.

Preliminary findings suggest that ERV happens because state institutions are too weak to prevent it. The dynastic control that a few families have had over political offices have enabled them to monopolize power that penetrates the state and societal spheres. And, national agencies and national civil society have largely been negligent of the local ERV situation, with unclear goals and understanding of the local situation.

Such concentrated power and weak accountability breeds corruption in government, which results in resources being unfairly distributed. Abra and Maguindanao are examples and they remain two of the poorest provinces at either end of the country.

The situation in Maguindanao is perhaps more complicated given the longstanding wars between the government and the secessionist and revolutionary groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, it is not entirely accurate to blame ERV in Maguindanao as purely a result of MILF’s self-determination issue. Like ERV in 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 level.

For the longest time, ERV remained a local issue, with both the national government and the civil society consenting to or accepting pockets of violence. However, this way of thinking must end now.

Paradoxically, the Maguindanao massacre gives the nation an opportunity to address long-standing problems.With this massacre, we have witnessed a level of brutality and evil that we have not seen before.

More than ever, there is a call for swift and decisive action by the authorities to bring those responsible to justice. There is a call to strengthen democracy throughout the entire country. We need national and local leaders who can effectively deliver basic services such as jobs, food, health, and education to their communities. And, more than ever, elections must be reclaimed as political instruments for peace, not reasons for violence.

Tony La Viña is the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) and teaches at the UP College of Law and the Ateneo School of Law. Joy Aceron teaches Political Science at the Loyola Schools of the Ateneo de Manila University and directs the Political Democracy and Reforms (PODER) program of the ASoG. ASoG is a regular partner with The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. This article was first published in http://asiafoundation.org/2009/12/02/justice-in-maguindanao/.