The Internationalist
December 2009  

Massacre in Maguindanao

Warlords, Clan Wars and
Capitalist Rule in Philippines

Philippine police amid bodies dug up from massacre in Maguindanao province, November 23.
(Photo: Rolex Dela Pena/European Pressphoto Agency

Down with Martial Law – U.S. Forces Get Out – Defend the Bangsamoro!
For a Trotskyist Party to Fight for Workers Revolution!

Warlord, Clan Wars at Kapitalistang Paghahari sa Pilipinas (Disyembre 2009)

MANILA/NEW YORK, December 20 – On November 23, some 57 people including women and journalists were massacred in Barangay Saniag, in the province of Maguindanao on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Among those killed were the wife of the deputy mayor of Buluan, Esmael (Toto) Mangudadatu, as well as several other female relatives. Supporters and companions of the Mangudadatus were on their way to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office to file a Certificate of Candidacy for the deputy mayor to run for provincial governor. Also among the victims were 18 journalists who were accompanying them. At around 10:30 a.m., they were blocked at a checkpoint manned by some 100 Maguindanao police and armed civilians allegedly led by Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., the mayor of Datu Unsay town and son of Maguindanao’s present governor, Ampal Ampatuan Sr. The entire cavalcade was kidnapped, and then executed one by one and buried in shallow graves. Even the victims’ vehicles were burned and buried to hide the evidence.

The horrific massacre and pictures of the killing field sent shock waves through the islands. It was the biggest election-related massacre in the history of the Philippines as well as the largest number of journalists killed in a single event. That the Ampatuans were responsible was quickly established by an eyewitness and journalists who at the last moment didn’t go on the caravan. Initially there was resounding silence from Malacañang, the presidential palace. For several days there were no arrests. The reason why was obvious: the Ampatuan clan were not only members of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s party, Ampatuan Sr. was a key ally who had delivered vital block votes that gave Arroyo a spurious majority in the 2004 election she stole. In the infamous “Hello, Garci” phone call recordings during vote counting that were later leaked to the press, Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano assured her excellency that they would have no problems in Maguindanao.1 “Garci” was right about that: more than 140,000 of the 1 million vote margin she demanded came from that one province (“The Ampatuans, the Military and Elections in Maguindanao: The Ties That Bind,” Bulatlat, 14 December). GMA owed the Ampatuans, big time.

As outrage mounted, eventually Ampatuan Jr. turned himself in, in hopes of quieting the uproar. But as politicians denounced the killers as “monsters,” soon journalists were producing reams of investigative reports on warlordism in Mindanao. What they showed is that all the national political dynasties were hooked up to all the feuding clans in the South. Ampatuan Sr. had run the province of Maguindanao with an iron hand since 2001, “as father, grandfather, uncle, and in-law to at least 10 mayors, vice mayors, and other local officials in the province” (Newsbreak, 26 November). He was first put in office, however, by Arroyo’s reputed liberal predecessor, Corazon Aquino. This monster was Cory’s man. Moreover, while they were bitter enemies of the Ampatuans, the victimized Mangudadatus were also allies of Arroyo, who ran the province of Sultan Kudarat next door. Probably because of that, they figured that if they sent a caravan of women to register Toto Mangudadatu’s candidacy, and if there were plenty of journalists along to record the event, they would be safe. It was a fatal miscalculation.

Since the controversy wouldn’t die down, on December 5 President Arroyo had Governor Ampatuan Sr. taken into military custody for “questioning” and the province placed under martial law. This would allow troops to make arrests without warrants and restore order, according to cabinet secretary Eduardo Ermita, the eminence grise who runs Malacañang for GMA. Some 4,000 soldiers of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) flooded Maguindanao. They discovered an arms cache buried in one of the Ampatuan compounds with enough weapons for a military brigade. Moreover, the arms bore the markings of the Department of National Defense. What a surprise! It was well-known that the AFP armed local clan militias to back up its brutal offensive against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the area. In particular, the AFP used the Ampatuans against the MILF in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). After several years of truce and negotiations, in August 2008 the government suddenly junked a tentative deal recognizing the Muslims “ancestral domain” and relaunched the war (see “Philippine Government Launches New War on Muslim Groups,” beginning on page 37 of this issue).

In classic Vietnam counterinsurgency style, the military cleared out whole swaths of the countryside, forcing three-quarters of a million people into refugee camps. More than a year after the army launched its offensive against the MILF rebels in this historically Muslim region, some 300,000 refugees remain, many of them living in soggy makeshift huts and under buildings, afraid to go home. Up until the November 25 massacre, the Ampatuans were Arroyo’s main political ally in holding the Bangsamoro population at bay. Accompanying the AFP on Mindanao and other southern islands is “an elite, 600-soldier [U.S.] counterinsurgency force that operates in Mindanao alongside Philippine armed forces,” as the New York Times (23 November) reported from the area only a couple of days before the Maguindanao massacre. The “visiting forces” agreement for the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines was renewed this year by the new Obama administration in Washington. And as the Philippine Daily Inquirer (9 August 2008) remarked under a dramatic photo of a U.S. soldier in an armored personnel carrier in Zamboanga City, with “no sign of leaving after 6 years” (now seven), “it sure is becoming a long visit.” We can also be sure that the U.S. special forces are linked to the warlords’ militias, as they also are in Afghanistan.

The League for the Fourth International calls on the workers movement internationally, and particularly in the United States, to demand the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces and agents from the Philippines. Philippine workers should take action to force the imperialist forces out, as they did with Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base which were used as staging areas for the Vietnam War. Defenders of democratic rights should vigorously oppose the martial law imposed in Maguindanao province. The military will carry out plenty of warrantless arrests, but that will hardly produce justice. The precedent will be used elsewhere in the country to impose “security” controls during the 2010 elections, and possibly even to postpone them and prolong Arroyo’s stay in the presidential palace. There are always plenty of incidents by sinister forces that can be used to justify such draconian measures, and if not they can be arranged. In addition, Filipino workers should act to force the withdrawal of the AFP from the contested southern areas, and to defend the Bangsamoro people and their right to self-determination.

Political Warlordism and Clan Wars in the Service of Capital

Political warlords have existed in the Philippines for quite a while, and not just in the South. This is not some heritage from a distant feudal past, to be ascribed to Spanish viceroys or Muslim sultans. This phenomenon of local political clans and their private armies grew rampant under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s. It came in all varieties. Sugar barons in Negros and the Visayas, logging lords and landlords in the Cordillera, the Cojuangcos’ domains in Tarlac or the Marcos’ political fiefdom in Ilocos Norte. Warlordism was particularly prevalent in Mindanao as the government brought in huge numbers of colonists from elsewhere in the Philippines in order to dominate the indigenous Muslim population. Arroyo has cultivated warlords there, as did Cory Cojuangco Aquino before her. The clan wars of Mindanao are an expression of decaying capitalism in this semi-colonial country as whole regions are driven into penury and the bourgeois state needs auxiliary forces to keep “order” – particularly in areas such as the Bangsamoro region that are under military occupation.

Various left-wing groups have responded to the Maguindanao massacre by pointing at the system of trapo (traditional politician) politics, which fostered such political bosses’ domination over their fiefdoms. Sonny Melencio’s new Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM – Power of the Masses Party) issued a statement headlined, “Justice for the Maguindanao Heroes! End Trapo Politics Now!” It notes that “the political impunity of the families and clans that control the political establishment is a permanent feature of politics in this country. It’s the mark of trapo politics.” True enough, but when it talks of “ending trapo politics,” what does that mean? Melencio calls to “end to elite rule and establish a government of the masa.” While elsewhere he refers vaguely to “socialism” and “change,” this could be the “socialism” of a Hugo Chávez, whom he hails, which has fostered an avaricious “Bolivarian bourgeoisie.” Melencio, a Filipino-style social democrat, carefully avoids any reference to class struggle, and particularly to socialist revolution of the workers leading the peasantry and oppressed peoples. Yet no (bourgeois) democratic program is going to put an end to “elite rule,” which is rooted in capitalism.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) issued denunciations of the gruesome massacre and called for opposition to martial law (as did the PLM). They also point to the complicity of U.S. imperialism. Yet while hoping for an “Oust Gloria” movement to arise from the furor over the massacre, for the last few months the Stalinist “national democratic” camp has been trying to join up with any “democratic” trapo it can do a deal with. Last spring, NDF co-founder and current leader of the Bayan Muna party list Satur Ocampo, and Gabriela women’s party list spokesperson Liza Maza announced the formation of a new Makabayang coalition for the May 2010 elections. “This is the politics of genuine change … politikang mula sa masa [politics of the masses],” Maza said in her speech, adding that the coalition stood for patriotism, democracy, people’s rights and welfare. At the same time, Rep. Jose de Venecia called for “a coalition between the centrist forces and Makabayan” (“Left-wing groups unveil new party coalition,” Inquirer.net, 16 April).

What this coalition with “centrists” meant was spelled out recently, as Ocampo went shopping for a leading bourgeois presidential candidate to hook up with. Fellow Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño bragged that “we have a sure base of more or less three million votes” to offer (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 13 November). Ocampo tried to bargain with Benigno Aquino III, but although they had a common foe in GMA, the issue of Hacienda Luisita was a sticking point. The Aquino family doesn’t want to give up their estate despite farmers’ demands that it be parceled out under the agrarian reform law. Then Makbayan turned to Sen. Manuel Villar, the presidential candidate of the Nacionalista Party (NP). Things seemed to be going alright until Villar signed an alliance with Ilocos Norte Rep. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 November). But in spite of the “delicate position” this presented for Ocampo, he and Maza evidently overcame any qualms and on December 14 the two announced they would be “guest candidates” on the Nacionalistas’ Senate slate, and perhaps sharing in the NP’s “campaign kitty.”

Political warlordism, clan warfare, trapos and the rest of the distinguishing features of Philippine politics are not some incidental blemishes or warts that can be smoothed over with a little political Botox or removed with some democratic cosmetic surgery. They are not anachronistic survivals from the past. They are essential characteristics of capitalist rule in semi-colonial countries that cannot, in this imperialist epoch, achieve the essential elements of the classical bourgeois revolutions without overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie. Agrarian revolution threatens even the most liberal of the landlord-capitalists, as the Cojuangco-Aquinos have made clear with the Hacienda Luisita massacre.2 To talk of democracy after the Maguindanao massacre and when even “progressive” politicians join the trapos to get some of that vital political cash – is a cruel joke. As for national liberation, you certainly won’t have that with U.S. special forces traipsing around Mindanao “advising” their Filipino counterparts on how to put down rebels – like in the Jolo massacre of 1906 when U.S. Marines slaughtered 900 Moros fighting for independence.3 In the Philippines, massacres tell the story.

All these tasks require that the workers seize power, with the support of impoverished farmers and oppressed peoples, and proceed to the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and international socialist revolution. This is something the Stalinists and social democrats cannot and will not fight for as they are buried in forming alliances, coalesce with any bourgeois party or politician that they can in opposition to the Arroyo regime. It requires the formation of a revolutionary party of the proletarian vanguard, a Leninist party based on the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution. Such a party, independent of all bourgeois forces, would fight to defeat the warlords, to drive U.S. troops out of the country and consistently defend the Bangsamoro and  their fight for self-determination. This is the program of the League for the Fourth International. 

1 See “Presidential Crisis in the Philippines,” The Internationalist No. 22, September-October 2005.

2 See “Massacre of Sugar Plantation Workers in the Philippines,” The Internationalist No. 21, Summer 2005.

3 See “The Class War In Southeast Asia,” The Internationalist No. 17, October-November 2003.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com