Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, June 18, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

It is tragic that Maguindanao—its history conferred with  honor and heroism—has become the ground for the most brazen kind of election fraud in the Philippines.

In Philippine and Moro history, Maguindanao has the distinction of being one of the few territories that Spain and the United States had difficulty subjugating.  Both Spain and the United States had to wage aggressive, brutal campaigns, using treachery as well as divide and rule, in their efforts to subdue the fierce resistance of the Maguindanaos and the other Moro people.

In a manner, Maguindanao’s past—the episodes of triumph and defeat, of co-existence and betrayal, of prosperity and deprivation—predicted its present complications. Reynaldo Ileto’s masteral thesis at Cornell University in 1971, titled Magindanao 1860-1888: The Career of Datu Utto of Buayan, and recently published by Anvil (2007 edition), provides us an understanding of that past as well as the present.  As the author put it, his thesis navigated “a largely uncharted realm of Philippine history.”

The anti-colonial struggle continues, taking a new form and dimension, embodied in the secessionist movement directed against the Philippine central government and its external sponsors.

And history replays itself.  Like what the Spaniards did to Datu Utto—isolating him by bribing and deceiving other chieftains—the central government is using an opportunistic alliance with the local elite to assert control over Maguindanao. The Ampatuan clan’s monopoly of political power in Maguindanao has the blessing of the central government. The Ampatuan dynasty is dependent on   Malacañang’s patronage or largesse.   The dreaded Datu Andal Ampatuan is nothing but Malacañang’s vassal.

The monopoly of a political clan or the absence of political competition (we count out the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for it positions itself outside the frame of the Republic of the Philippines) aggravates Maguindanao’s crisis of development.   Worse, through the barrel of the gun, the local ruler suppresses the media, the church groups, the civil society organizations, and anyone who wants to play the role of guarding the guardians. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Without the threat of being booted out of office precisely because of its monopoly of power, the Ampatuan clan has a weak incentive to do good governance or deliver even a modicum of the basic services to its constituents.  Not even the budget constraint of a poor province could deter the ruling clan from using scarce resources to whimsically relocate the capital and construct a white elephant, a new provincial capitol. To use the classic example of economic choice, the Ampatuan clan uses public funds to buy guns, not butter (or rice),

The warlord’s predatory rule and the war in Mindanao have further impoverished Maguindanao. It is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines.  Based on the 2003 survey of the National Statistical Coordination Board, Maguindanao was ranked the second poorest province in the country, with more than 60 percent of families living below the poverty line.

In terms of the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2003, Maguindanao was at the tail end, scoring 0.498 (with 1.0 as the perfect score).  The version of the index that is cited here, useful for international comparison, is made up of the following variables: life expectancy, functional literacy, combined elementary and secondary enrolment rate, and per capita income (based on purchasing power parity).   Maguindanao’s HDI score is equal to that of Swaziland, a very poor African country ruled by an absolute monarchy, with about 70 percent of the population living on one US dollar per day.

It is downright reductionist to say that Maguindanao’s backwardness is a function of its being a Muslim province. Masbate, predominantly Catholic, is also among the poorest provinces, with a poverty incidence of 55.9 percent of families in 2003. Like Maguindanao, poverty in Masbate is linked to the political violence and the warlordism having a stranglehold on the province. The fall of the Espinosa dynasty was a fairly recent phenomenon, only to be replaced by another political clan.

Maguindanao was once prosperous.  Professor Ileto in his thesis shows how significant the role of Maguindanao was in spurring  trade and commerce that spanned the Philippine islands and extended to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

Worth noting was the economic behavior of the warring sides—the anti-Spanish Maguindanaos led by Datu Utto who controlled the fertile lands in the interior and Spain’s local collaborators based in the coastal area.  Even as the two sides fought politically and militarily, they both recognized the mutual gains from trade.  They took advantage of the complementarities—the interior had the resources, the coast had the port infrastructure—to maximize their welfare. In this sense, competition also begot periods of cooperation and co-existence.

Whereas the Maguindanao of the 19th century gained prominence as a commercial hub, today’s Maguindanao is notorious for its violent politics and fraudulent elections. Whereas the Maguindanao of the 19th century influenced archipelagic as well as international trade patterns, today’s Maguindanao shapes the outcome of national elections.

We should not allow the massive cheating in Maguindanao to dictate the outcome of the 2007 senatorial elections.  Never again should there be a repeat of the 2004 presidential election, in which the cheating in Maguindanao was crucial for Mrs. Gloria Arroyo to steal the presidency.

But this time, it has been proven that it is far more difficult for the party of Mrs. Gloria Arroyo to steal the last senatorial slot. The people are convinced—corroborated by the reports from election watchdogs and the media—that massive cheating occurred in Maguindanao, which benefited Mrs. Arroyo’s candidates.  Public opinion is overwhelmingly clear:  The last seat for the Senate legally and legitimately belongs to the opposition.

An enervating complication for Mrs. Arroyo and Commission on Elections (Comelec) chair Benjamin Abalos is that they are fighting fires on several fronts.  Their main fight is no longer the electoral contest.  At any rate, Mrs. Arroyo has lost the Senate.  The insertion of a political featherweight in the person of Miguel Zubiri will not have an impact on the balance of forces in the Senate.

The big fight that Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Abalos have to devote their full energy and concentration is the highly explosive broadband deal with the ZTE Corporation of China.  It is alleged that the contract with ZTE is grossly overpriced and unlawful.  Philippine Star’s Jarius Bondoc wrote in his 15 June 2007 column that ZTE is “backed by a high Comelec officer and a powerful official’s spouse.”

Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Abalos would be well advised to drop the battle on the electoral front in order to concentrate on what is expected to be a ferocious battle regarding the broadband deal.

Nonetheless, the opposition has to prepare for any eventuality.  The final outcome of the senatorial elections remains suspended.  The Comelec’s every move in Maguindanao has to be monitored.

Again, who will guard the guardians?  It is imperative for the media, the churches, the NGOs, and the diplomatic community to focus their attention on Maguindanao and keep the issue of election cheating alive.

It is high time we forged solidarity with our Maguindanao compatriots.  It is high time we reciprocated the Maguindanaos’ heroism in the historic but unfinished struggle against oppression and injustice.