The Ampatuan massacre and the failure of institutions

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the November 30, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

“The conspiracy may involve the national government.”  So says Amina Rasul, a brave Muslim lady, who should have become a senator if only Filipinos were enthusiastic about electing ethnic minorities into national office.

But even if we set aside a conspiracy theory, this is fairly established, and I quote the editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (27 November 2009):

“Consider that the Maguindanao ‘vote’ proved critical to President Arroyo’s presidential bid….

“In return what did the Ampatuans receive? Among many other favors, a crucial piece of paper, as the PCIJ [Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism] has written:  In 2006, Executive Order 546 allowed the use of barangay tanods (village watchmen) as ‘force multipliers’ in peace and order and counter-insurgency operations. The order gave legal sanction to civilian volunteer organizations or CVOs—and effectively legalized private armies.”

In other words, Gloria Arroyo’s unqualified support for the warlords—to the extent of subordinating the police and the military to the Ampatuans and giving the Amapatuans a private army—set the stage for the massacre.

In addition, the Arroyo administration did not even conduct a formal investigation into reports about the Ampatuans’ involvement in piracy and smuggling, in the narcotics trade and in gun running.

In short, the Arroyo administration is also culpable.

We can clearly see a failure of institutions not only in Maguindanao but in the whole country.  Such failure is magnified by the massive election cheating (2004 and 2007) at the national level, the politicization of the Ombudsman and other independent government bodies, the packing of the Supreme Court with lapdogs, the Executive capture of Congress, the extra-judicial killings of activists and journalists, the circumvention of laws to commit corruption and repress the people, etc.

The failure is also manifested in what may seem at first as relatively harmless incidents. To quote the Inquirer editorial again:

“While the extreme savagery and sheer scale of the mass murder are unprecedented, the basic impulse behind it is something we are all too familiar with:  When unmarked black-tinted SUVs wang-wang their insolent way through a city’s roads, when government officials who have no other source of income except access to public funds ostentatiously purchase the most expensive luxury items, when public servants swagger into a room with dozens of bodyguards, we recognize the seeds of future massacres.”

Mrs. Arroyo brought about much of the damage to institutions in the post-dictatorship period.  Monumental were the legalized coup engineered by the Arroyo faction to oust the corrupt and incompetent Joseph Estrada and the systematic cheating in the 2004 elections, with Garci, the Ampatuans and their military accomplices playing a most decisive role.

An opportunity beckons to address the utter failure of institutions.  The 2010 elections must be an occasion to exact accountability from the Arroyo administration and indict all the political criminals, including the Ampatuans.  The elections must likewise be an occasion to rehabilitate the institutions and re-write the rules for the better.

For the above reason, we welcome Noynoy Aquino’s call for “transformational change.”  His leadership can bring back the people’s trust in government and in institutions.

Aquino’s rival, Manny Villar, has framed the forthcoming elections as a war against poverty.  In itself, his statement that we must fight poverty is not controversial.  But framing his candidacy as a war against poverty is being used to disguise his coalition with politicians who symbolize the old, discredited politics.  Villar is in effect saying that we cannot win the war against poverty without the Marcoses, the corrupt trapos (traditional politicians), and the warlords.

We must ask: What in the first place accounts for the persistence of poverty in the Philippines? Several economic diagnostics have been done, and clearly the most binding constraint on investments and growth, and thus poverty reduction, is bad governance, a result of bad institutions.

Noynoy Aquino has a good grasp of what ails the country.  What we need is decent, honest leadership so people can regain trust in institutions. In turn, honest government can pave the way for “transformative change.”  For instance, the country is now in a fiscal bind because of very low tax effort.  Honest government will induce the citizens to pay taxes correctly, for they know that taxpayers’ money will not be pocketed and will be used to finance essential services.

For his message of rebuilding institutions and effecting “transformative change” to be credible, Noynoy Aquino must exercise strong leadership within the Liberal Party (LP)). Specifically, he must know what compromises will undermine his central message and therefore must be rejected.

Serge Osmeña’s decision to run for senator as an independent after criticizing the LP for recruiting Ralph Recto, an erstwhile ally of Mrs. Arroyo, highlights the dilemma that Aquino and his party are facing.

Nothing is wrong about entering into coalitions with less desirable politicians in order to defeat the most dangerous enemy. But having a tactical alliance with opportunists does not mean having them, especially the corrupt, join a political party that is for “transformative change.”  Franklin Roosevelt had an alliance with Stalin, which was necessary to defeat Hitler.  But Roosevelt never asked Stalin to become a Democrat.

Even from a perspective of political exigency, having Recto join the LP to gain more votes is insignificant.  The fact is, as surveys show, the team of Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas will win big in Batangas and other highly urbanized areas.  And the honorable, gentle lady that is Governor Vilma Santos will not allow cheating in her province, regardless of her party affiliation.

To be sure, Ralph Recto is no ugly and monstrous Ampatuan.  But like the Ampatuans, Recto was a conspicuous prop of the Arroyo administration.  His being a turncoat and jumping on the bandwagon, aside from his being a close ally of Villar, would have been enough reason to deny him LP membership.

Unfortunately, the uncalled-for, opportunistic Recto compromise is being replicated in other areas.  For instance, highly respected friends from Bicol, associated with the LP, are saddened that the party is negotiating with an incorrigibly corrupt Arroyo loyalist and fielding other undesirable candidates at the local level. And there are stories about good candidates being vetoed because of sectarian rivalries.

Backsliding to the old politics, allowing “more of the same” to prevail, and worse, harboring the corrupt and the opportunists undercut Noynoy Aquino’s message of good government and “transformative change.”  Aquino and the reformers in the LP can learn from Barack Obama whose message of hope was embraced by the US electorate. They can do this through deep vetting of candidates and advisers within the LP.

Tolerating patronage or the trapo culture and a  “more-of-the-same” mindset will only breed and reproduce the future Ampatuans.

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