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Goons, Guns & Gold Still Run Philippine Politics

New America Media, Commentary, Rene P. Ciria-Cruz Posted: Nov 27, 2009

Filipinos have long been inured to poll-related violence in their country, but even jaded observers were stunned by the unprecedented mass murder last Monday of 57 people in Maguindanao, a politically volatile province on Mindanao Island. A scion of a powerful political clan allied with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is the suspected mastermind of the massacre.

The massacre is the most outrageous example of what Filipinos have long lamented as the usual ingredients of their elections--goons, guns and gold. Peaceful elections in their country often turn into armed struggles, not for revolutionary change, but for the perpetuation of one elite faction over another. The horrific crime also shows the extremely rough social terrain confronting Filipinos still unsuccessful efforts to build a modern democratic state.

The popular outcry against the premeditated massacrethe killers had dug a mass grave before the group abduction and executionshows that the crime had unacceptably crossed a line. Not only did the number of fatalities overshadow previous acts of non-ideological political violence, but the extent of the killings shocked: the victims included supporters and relatives of a would-be gubernatorial candidate and member of a rival clan, as well as women, 18 journalists, and travelers innocently passing the scene of the atrocity. The next election isnt until May next year, but the guns are already blazing.

Most traditional Filipino politicians dispense the gold, or huge amounts of cash, to buy votes. But they also recruit goons with guns, or private armies, to take on equally militarized opponents. Most successful politicians, therefore, come from factions of the oligarchic national and local elites that have the means to pursue a candidacy. Once in office, these political warlords boost their capacity for violence and intimidation with militias armed and deputized by the Philippine military, purportedly to counter Communist or Muslim insurgents. The Maguindanao massacre was the result of a deadly combination of political warlordism, which is prevalent in many parts of the country, and clan feuding, which persists in many indigenous areas of Mindanao, where the clan feud is called rido.

The rido is a common occurrence among rival Moro clans, like the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatu, the main protagonists in the recent massacre. A rido is akin to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, or the Sicilian vendetta, only with more scorched earth because of the proliferation of high-powered firearms in many Mindanao provinces. Customarily, only male relatives and properties are imperiled. Aside from underscoring the massacres monstrosity, the inclusion of women and non-relatives as targets showed a rido spilling into the political arena.

Its a grim example of the failures of the modern-era Philippine state. When the country emerged as a nation during the 1896 revolution against Spanish colonialism, its fledgling politico-economic elites previous governing experience under Spanish rule had been limited to glorified tax-collecting. After 50 years of tutelage by a new colonizer, the United States, the showcase of American-style democracy in Asia acquired all the trappings of democratic governance but hardly anything more. The Philippine state has yet to become a reliable and effective guarantor of the peoples security and access to equal opportunity or even basic social services.

Instead, most Filipinos have continued to rely solely on their families, clans, and influential contacts in high places for protection and economic advancement, inevitably reinforcing fragmentation and corruption in the political culture. The political system that has stood since the nation formally became a republic in 1946, has the sheen of a U.S.-style democracy but the innards of an oligarchy, with privileged political dynasties competing, often underhandedly and violently, for their turn at the helm.

Not everything in the Philippine politics is a disaster, however. New generations of Filipinos have been fighting to reorient their political system ever since People Power restored democratic institutions beginning with the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos more than two decades ago. Theyve been insisting on a government that puts a premium on the peoples well-being. CNNs Hero of the Year, Efren Penaflorida, who educates underprivileged youth from book-laden pushcarts, essentially shares this broad spirit. Reform-minded civic groups and movements have even gained small footholds in the legislature and various government agencies where theyre attempting to catalyze a culture of reform and public service. Sadly, the Maguindanao massacre is a reminder that Philippine politics is still very much dominated by goons, guns and gold, and that the road ahead for democratic reform will be rough and complicated.

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