GENERAL SANTOS CITY - Known as the Land of Promise, Mindanao is a virtual paradise with its lush tropical forests, vast tracts of fertile lands, beautiful coastlines, rich marine life, and mountains teeming with minerals and upland communities, says a tourism promotional brochure on the Philippine archipelago's second largest island of Mindanao which is truly rich with gold, silver, copper and other minerals and also with rich agricultural economy.
But not any more. The beauty of the resource rich island has been overshadowed by a protracted conflict where militant groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the New Peoples' Army (NPA) and the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are waging a ruthless war on different demands.
|Bodies of victims being unearthed from graves a day after the massacre
The latest entry to the conflict theatre in the Muslim autonomous region is the politically powerful and militarily strong 'war-load clans' which have been assisting the government in its battle against the MILF and ASG since 2001.
"You can count at least 100 such warlords legitimately controlling regions, provinces and districts within the island. The father is the elected governor, son is provincial mayor and the other sons would be the city mayors in all these cases," Ryan D Rosauro, a Mindanao-based journalist, said. These warlords are controlling private armies -- as large as 5000 soldiers --with latest weaponry being supplied by the Defence Ministry. These warlord-clans also man and control the police and other paramilitaries through their private armies.
According to political analysts, these warlords are the real kingmakers during elections. "The one who makes the best deal with these warlords wins the presidency. They cast the decisive votes to the potential winner at the last minute," human rights activist Bai Ali Indayla said.
"They just stuff the ballot boxes on the previous day of the polls and the voters in their regions are advised to 'pretend voting' for the sake of media," added Bai. Regional, national and Presidential polls in the Philippines are held in the same day using the same ballot paper. The warlord clans make sure that the ballot papers of the 'pretended voting' is dumped or destroyed and the stuffed ones reach the counting centers on time using their own 'police forces.'
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's political ally, the Ampatuan Clan in the Maguindanao Province of Mindanao Island, ensured hundred percent votes for President Arroyo in 2004 polls in a region it controls. But the group has now become the biggest headache for her. The Mayor son of Governor Ampatuan Sr along with hundreds of his militia men is accused of the infamous November 23 massacre of 57 people that included 31 journalists in the Ampatuan jungles.
The Ampatuan militia allegedly hijacked a six-vehicle convoy of a political rival, Ismael "Toto" Mangudadatu. They were on their way to file papers that would allow Mangudadatu to run for governor of the province.
"Challenging Ampatuans became a major story that attracted massive media attention. That is why so many journalists wanted to cover the filing of candidacy of Mangadadatus," National Union of Journalists deputy head Nonoy Espina said. The Philippines is preparing for the polls in May 2010 with filing candidacies as the initial step.
The Ampatuans were well aware of the presence of the journalists in the convoy and they were specifically targeting several journalists who were exposing corruption and other atrocities by the warlord clan, according to Espina.
Their bodies were recovered in two close-by graveyards which were supposed to have been dug several days prior to the massacre. "Bodies were laid in layers covered with layers of soil. Heavy vehicles and backhoes have gone over them several times to make the bodies beyond recognition," said journalist Rowena Weng who witnessed the excavation process of the bodies.
Manila imposed martial law on December 4 on the region claiming that the measure was necessary to avert a possible rebellion by Ampatuan supporters and to capture the politically powerful culprits. Most of the senior Ampatuans are now behind bars. Governor Ampatuan admitted himself in hospital complaining of a 'chest pain' after he was 'invited to surrender'.
The myth that the Ampatuans was untouchable was shattered by the Martial Law, Jesus G. Durezza, a Presidential Advisor for Mindanao, said. "Seventy percent of evidences we required for murder charges have already been secured thanks to the Martial Law," he added.
However, critics accuse the government of delaying investigations and showing no urgency in arresting the culprits. "Ampatuans are receiving royal treatment in custody, not as average murder suspects," Espina said. Journalists who are covering the story are being continuously threatened, armed criminals are hunting for some senior journalists, judges are being threatened and culture of impunity prevails, he said.
"The threat posed by the war-loads is greater compared to that of the terrorists like MILF," says Prof. Rommel Banlaoi, the Chair of the Manila based think-tank Philippine Center for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. "The issue has been there for some time and this particular case of Ampatuan has opened the eyes of many," Prof Rommel said.