What happened in Maguindanao is more than a tragedy. It is a moment of insanity.
Condemn it, we must. Understand the circumstances that made this barbarity even remotely possible, we should.
Over the past few days, we have done the round of excoriations. The outrage is justified. The condemnation is well deserved.
This is a massacre whose barbarity rippled across the globe. The rest of the world is not satisfied with the simple explanation that a culture of impunity has evolved in this little corner of humanity. The rest of the world wants to understand why a condition like this one was allowed to persist — a condition where petty provincial rulers were allowed to keep so many men under arms with little control from the state and enforce their own rules of the game in defiance of the rule of law.
When Gibo Teodoro, former defense secretary, was asked in a press conference how something as mind-boggling as this one could even happen, he said the situation in the locality was complex. He could have gone on and on explaining what that means, but that would have required transforming the press briefing into a full-scale seminar on the vulnerabilities of the Philippine state.
True, a culture of impunity has evolved in that locality. True, political patronage has encouraged political warlordism. True, the authorities looked the other way while local tyrants became more abusive by the day.
But let us talk about the complexity as well. That is important, too. It will help us avert a repeat of such gross atrocities as this one.
The standing estimate is that the Ampatuan clan has 800 men (!) under arms. That virtual army is maintained largely at the expense of the state. Government armed and paid allowances to most of these men: a private army operating under the cover of “civilian volunteers” useful for containing the insurgency in the region.
Until this chilling tragedy happened, the authorities found the arrangement concerning “civilian volunteers” a largely functional one. A trade-off was adopted early in the game, many presidencies ago.
Since the AFP did not have enough men and equipment to effectively contain the armed secessionist groups in the area, the “civilian volunteers” functioned as force extenders. In the case of the Maguindanao “civilian volunteers” were very useful. They kept the MILF trapped in the Maranao areas, with the Maguindanao-speaking areas relatively free of insurgents.
There is a price to pay for that: government tacitly condoned warlords who did their best to contribute to suppressing the insurgency. This has been the unspoken arrangement since the days when these “civilian volunteers” were called BSDUs and then CAFGUs.
The “civilian volunteers” in Maguindanao province provided a crucial buffer, keeping the insurgent groups away from the productive plantations, tuna industries and bustling urban economies to the south. The occasional abuses committed by the warlords, until this week, were a small price to pay for the strategic role of keeping the Maguindanao area and those to the south of the province free of insurgency.
In a way, government had little choice. There was not enough money to enlarge the army so that it achieves an effective ratio of superiority over the secessionist guerrilla forces and the isolated communist gangs. “Civilian volunteers” might be a band-aid solution to a strategic vulnerability, but it was the best that could be done.
This is the complex structure of considerations underpinning Gibo Teodoro’s statement that the only way we can get rid of private armies is to enlarge the army. That is a statement made boldly and frankly — even at the risk of many voters failing to get the point.
Gibo Teodoro should know what the complex considerations are. He served an exemplary two years as defense secretary.
The warlords were not about to squander the leverage they enjoyed. They used the private armies to consolidate their local power bases and occasionally pleased their patrons in Manila by delivering votes in their favor. Still, the existence of these private armies is a by-product of a strategic vulnerability of the state, not just the administration.
Until we have enough money to invest in greater military capability to contain a well-armed insurgent movement, we will have to rely on the cheap repressive labor contributed by “civilian volunteers”organized by local warlords.
The Ampatuans are not an idle clan. They understood their leverage and employed it to the hilt. They won sub-Cabinet posts, the governorship of the ARMM, mayoral posts in towns they renamed after their forebears, and the largesse of government projects. They probably ran shady businesses, too, which should explain the great wealth exhibited by clan members. With their leverage, government simply looked the other way and pray nothing too disastrous would come out of this unholy but unavoidable arrangement.
But something truly disastrous has happened. The arrangement will now have to be abrogated. What that means is that the civilian volunteer groups need to be disbanded, the offending local tyrants made to face the full eight of the law and the military, although already thinly spread out, must be redeployed to cover the vacuum.
Andal Ampatuan Jr. will face the music. The outrage is such that this clan has become a political inconvenience. We will now have to find the means to replace the strategic role their private armies played in the counter-insurgency effort.
In the wake of this tragedy, the only guys who have anything to cheer about are the insurgent groups and their allied criminal and terrorist gangs. That is the greatest misfortune of this whole thing.