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BLOWBACK: The Massacre in Maguindanao

December 1st, 2009
01:29 AM ET
The Massacre in Maguindanao in the Philippines
The Massacre in Maguindanao in the Philippines

By Maria A. Ressa
Head, ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs
Former CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief

You can’t escape the laws of physics.  Newton’s third law of motion states: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  In the world of governments and their security forces, it’s called blowback – a term first coined by the US Central Intelligence Agency in classified documents to describe US and British covert operations in Iran in 1953.  They helped overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh, setting in motion a chain of events which inspired the revival of Islamic fundamentalism around the world.

Blowback happened again in Afghanistan in the late 80’s when the US funneled more than $3 billion, through Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, to build up the Afghan resistance against the Soviets.  That sowed the seeds for 9/11 and the major terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia from 2001 to 2009.  Among the key beneficiaries was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who helped train Osama bin Laden and thousands of Southeast Asian militants including the founder of the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, some of the Bali and JW Marriott bombers.

Blowback happened in Maguindanao in the southern Philippines – where warlords with private armies funded by the state wield political power.

It’s a complex situation: the power structure of government is a thin overlay on top of a complex social hierarchy based on families or clans.  These clans periodically clash – feuds known as rido, which can be ignited by the flimsiest of reasons – a quarrel over women or a verbal slight.  Clans became the foundation of electoral politics and determined the distribution of power and resources.

Add the fight against Muslim insurgents, first the MNLF or Moro National Liberation Front.  Now it’s the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of MILF, which provided training and sanctuary to numerous Islamic militants, including members of Jemaah Islamiyah, Al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.

The Ampatuan family’s rise to power began in the Marcos era, when it closely allied with the military to fight the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF.  When the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996, the enemy changed to the MILF, now the largest Muslim insurgency in the country.

In the late 1990’s, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., avowedly anti-MILF, was handpicked by the military to run as governor against a rival who was supportive of the MILF.  Ampatuan won in 2001 in an election that was largely seen to have been manipulated by the military.  He was described as a “military-sponsored warlord.”

He gained even greater power after he helped Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo win the 2004 presidential elections.   She won by such a large margin in his areas of influence, including all the votes in three Maguindanao towns, that her victory became suspicious.

In exchange, the Ampatuan family asked for money, guns and power.  In July 2006, President Arroyo overturned a clause in the Philippine Constitution that banned private armies.  She issued Executive Order 546 giving local officials and the Philippine National Police or PNP the power to create “force multipliers” in the fight against the MILF.  In reality, the Ampatuans converted their private armies to the legal and more elegant euphemism – CVO’s or civilian volunteer organizations.

The military has its own term for members of this private army: Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units or cafgus.  These are men who are paid by the local government and trained by the military – all deployed under the command of Ampatuan.  Unofficial estimates of the men under Ampatuan’s command reach 800, including cvo’s and cafgus.

Reports of violence, abuses of power, and murder increased through the years, but little was done.  People were too afraid to speak.  Shortly before the 2001 elections, one of his political rivals was murdered inside a restaurant.  Ampatuan was the primary suspect and was even charged, but nothing happened.  In another instance, police said the nephew of a rival was killed with a chainsaw.  The body was never found.  Another rival was burned alive.  In every instance, suspicion fell on Ampatuan, who created and exploited a culture of impunity.

This is the story of how the government and its security forces used the Ampatuans and their private armies to fight a proxy war against the MILF, and how it all horrendously backfired. After the main suspect, Andal Ampatuan, Jr., was brought to a Manila jail cell, he protested his innocence. "I didn't do it," he said, "it was the MILF."

Blowback.  In biblical terms: “we reap what we sow.”

Filed under:  1
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Liza

    Very true, indeed! A worst karma ever on the present government, spoiling those people, which in turn took precious lives of the innocents. A SNAKE IS A SNAKE NO MATTER WHAT.

    I'm from Mindanao now residing in Laguna (born and raised as a Catholic Christian) - studied in a Muslim-run state university (MSU) and I have heard many stories about this clan conflicts. It's just sad that Mindanao has been branded as a Muslim region where in fact only 1/3 of the Mindanao population are Muslims.

    To these people, LEAVE Mindanao alone! It's enough that people there suffer so much poverty and then here you are adding problem and worries to their peaceful living.

    Thank you.

    December 1, 2009 at 5:43 am | Reply
  2. Rene Ocampo

    The situation in Mindanao is complexed although the idea came about during the Marcos era, its purpose was to create a proxy war against the insurgents. But it was different with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo because her main objective was not to counter the muslim insurgents, but to maintain herself in power by guaranteeing her election by means of cheating through the powers of the Ampatuan clan who ruled Maguindanao by the gun. In return for her victory, she gave every inch to the demands of the clan by her allowing them to widen their territory therefor creating conflict among different clans.

    December 1, 2009 at 8:15 am | Reply
  3. Cynthia Buhain

    The greed and lust for power is the root cause of political dynasties in the Philippines and the main reason why the country has for years slipped into decay and corruption. Callous obsession for power and blind regard for "delicadeza" and propriety marked the past 2004 election where the incumbent president herself was charged with rigging the election in her favor with her public apology on the "Hello Garci" scandal. Such vile and vicious leadership therefore has no credibility nor voice to impart discipline, rule of law , or even correction, because it is also guilty of corruption.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:11 am | Reply
  4. shiela culpa

    In the Southern part of the Philippines, the culture of violence has so permeated the everyday lives of the common people that bombings and killings do not faze them anymore.

    And they haven't spoken lest they themselves become a target. The massacre in Maguindanao has raised the level of awareness, outrage and outpouring of support for justice. I say, it is high time.

    Sad, however, that it has to come to this point where so many lives and so much blood had been shed for the Filipinos to make a stand and be up in arms against such brutality and shamelessness.

    Sadder, that the current government is not doing it's utmost to bring justice to the victims' family and to the Filipino people. Instead, it's President, our president, has publicly declared it's unsevered friendship with the primary suspects. If it ain't tragic, it would have been funny.

    It's real life though, in Philippine setting. But we have hope. And the Filipino people will not rest until we see justice and change affected.

    December 1, 2009 at 11:33 am | Reply
  5. Tim Gibson

    Regardless of where the third law of motion that: “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” comes, it remains a fact there is a "blowback," a "backdraft." When a toe is dipped over the edge and into the waters without a glance over the shoulder the gases and smoke that remain at high temprature explode by a reintroduction of green oxygen.

    Beyond evolution or creation the fact is that involvement in other political mindfields are dangerous. Even to the point of a "civilian military army" of our own. Exactly what leads a political leader in stories such as these. Stories of a flame that burns, behind a closed door, yet in plain sight.

    It is knowledge of these stories which will draw very close attention on Obama when he speaks to the nation regarding our war on terror that is not a war on terror but an opportunity to meet new people and make friends. Friends who when paid, can do the job we cannot, but in the end, the "blowback" comes with an explosion, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan past and present and Pakistan. When is it to late to pull out?

    December 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  6. Manuel Velasco

    Allah Akbar- God is Almighty/Great.

    In the Southern Philippines , the conflict between Catholics and Muslim will go on non stop. What the government is facing is a war based on faith . For as long as Catholics dont stop meddling the Moslems there will no end to violence,Every Moslem has a solemn duty to Allah to fight for Islam in any way possible , by exloiting the Catholic enemy,use deceit to acquire resources for war, employ political tactics to gain power in the realm of a purely Catholic corrupt government then turm back to annihilate them.

    What we are fighting here is not simply a civil war. It is a conflict based and founded on Islamic faith The Ampatuans are fanatically motivated by this matter. Catholcs and Christians are seen by them as Infidels and foes of Islam. They will never admit wrong doing for they have been ordained by Allah . Their primary duty is for Islam,to fight their enemy. " It is hard to fight a war based on faith as in the case of Afghanistan ,Iraq and Iran JIHAD!!

    Perhaps, what they want is an Autonomous Purely Islamic State free from interference of the Catholics.

    December 1, 2009 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  7. Emilio Medina

    It is so obvious that a sizeable percentage of the people of Mindanao do not recognize the Philippine government as their government. The ARMM is a fake governing body.

    Why don't we consider partition, like in India and Pakistan. It is not the best solution; but it will empower the indigenous people to take up the responsibilities of self-government, not this terrorism of low-intensity conflict.

    I have been reading about this for 30 years. The loss of life has been increasing every year. The displaced Muslims are already in Luzon. Soon this conflict will be happening in the streets of Metro Manila.

    December 1, 2009 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  8. Maria

    let the government surprise the filipino people. will there be justice? the suspects are already in front of our noses. i don't believe that there will be justice. i am sorry for the victims and the victims family. this is Marcos all over again. always remember that there is a Judgement Day. and that GOD will judge us accordingly....

    December 2, 2009 at 12:52 am | Reply
  9. ray fort

    hope that this happens to the redolence larcenist and its family

    December 2, 2009 at 4:58 am | Reply
  10. expino

    Coming from Southern Mindanao, I totally agree with your views Maria. Just can't help but comment on the attempts of the government now to divert the attention of the Filipino people from the basic issue which is multiple murder to a variety of focus points like Andal Jr's surrender and GMA'S bid to stay in power. One question I would like to throw here is that why is it that the government is not charging the police officers who were reportedly at the checkpoint with Andal Jr with the same charges he is getting? The charges on Andal Jr were based upon the same testimonies of witnesses who identified these police officers to be at the same location. Is this another attempt of a classic cover up? And why are they just restricted to camp and not presented to the Filipino people? Oh I know! they are orchestrating a plan to use these police officers as state witnesses so they have a clean shot at putting down the Ampatuans to the point that they will not be credible enough to bring down the government with them!

    Well done!

    December 2, 2009 at 6:47 am | Reply
  11. Reiko Padilla

    The warlords must be stopped and made accountable for their crimes. I am aghast at the impunity these people have. To think that they have the right to rape, murder and mutilate women and men who are trying to exercise their political right is insane. I cringe at the thought that I am Filipino and this is happening in my country.

    If Arroyo wants to have a positive legacy as president , she should BE a president of the people NOT a president drunk with power and who is willing to go to bed with murderers and criminals.

    December 2, 2009 at 7:30 am | Reply
  12. Nelson Fontanilla Bedayo

    The Gloria Arroyo administration paved the way for the creation of these militias in return for favour she got when she won in 2004 by a landslide and more incredibly her senatoriables winning all the top 12 positions in the poll.

    Now she would have to savor the fact that the Philippines under her glorious presidency unseated Iraq as the most dangerous country for journalists.

    Nothwithstanding the gravity of this case and the embarrassment she now enjoys, Mrs. Arroyo has been keeping herself busy in her campaign to be the next Prime Minister. Despite the call for her not to run for any public office, she seems unperturbed and determined to 'serve her constituents in her home province'.

    Her acquisition of inexplicable assets and the desperate attempt to conceal them from public are proof that she has not reached her quota yet. The greedy and murderous Ampatuans and Mrs. Arroyo are certified allies bound by the same agenda and purpose.

    Both should be held accountable for crimes committed against the Filipino nation and therefore be punished to the full extent of the law.

    December 2, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  13. adel ramos

    and yet these same people would still get votes on next year's elections. tsk tsk tsk...

    December 5, 2009 at 8:17 am | Reply
  14. manoy

    let the government surprise the filipino people. will there be justice? the suspects are already in front of our noses. i don't believe that there will be justice. i am sorry for the victims and the victims family. this is Marcos all over again. always remember that there is a Judgement Day. and that GOD will judge us accordingly....

    December 5, 2009 at 9:53 am | Reply
  15. joma

    now we can see the real effect how money and power governs the life of many people, how can the president excuse herself of not getting involve in this matter, its really very obvious!! dammmm political killings!

    December 6, 2009 at 12:28 am | Reply
  16. Nanie Geronimo

    Dire cosnsequeces for the nation, and the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao is another blowback we all as a people now must reap, but we also as a people must so vigilant check as the Arroyo adminsitration, losing nothing else, have now shifted to over drive to thawrt the 2010 election by further fueling the flames of what was for all its underlying reasons as Maria Ressa cites, is also a case of rival gangs whose relationships have gone sour turned to a national conflagration that rages, and the institutions to serve as repellant so conviniently conniving with the President. O, where thou is Congress and the Supreme Court when Mother Philippines is in peril? Relaxing for the weekend!

    The Maguindano mass grave could not have happened at a worst time when the best season to Filipinos – Christmas, a time of giving and forgiving – in upon us. With all the pain and angush, will we hear again another , " I am sorry?" I am so angered I am upset, first at government for allowing all of these to happen, and then to myself because, i ask, what can I do?

    The hypocrisy of presidential fhopeful and ex-DND secretary, Gibo Teodoro, proclaiming with glib tongue and even unprecendented gall that under his watch the DND was transparent and corrupt blew in his face - blowback - when that same night, a cache of weapons and ammunition were excavated from the Ampatuan's mansion reported in natonal TV. Where is he now? What kind of lies packaged as truth will he peddle to the people? He is smart and intelligent, true, but so is his endorser, Gloria, smart, intelligent and so utterly corrupt!

    I urge all of us to give this government the ultimate blowback. Do not elect their stooges and alies who will continue to rape our nation, leaving us with not a shred of dignity.

    Ibasura sila sa balota, hindi sa bala!

    December 6, 2009 at 3:52 am | Reply
  17. ladislau

    Thank you Liza!I never knew that Mindanao have only 1/3 muslim population.Well,for the rest no comment...

    December 6, 2009 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  18. ratifying obliqueer

    Yes, I agree to Miss Maria Ressa. I hope that this will not happen again. That this country will have a hope in the future. My mother is tired of voting, every election seems to bother her. Because what she observed power grabbing, frauds, massacre's and many bad election related crimes and violence.
    I myself is no longer a voter, the first time i voted was when i was 19yrs old i only put in my ballot 2 senators and the rest are blank. And now i still feel I'm just wasting my time going to precincts to cast my vote. And my target now is getting out of this country and just come back for a vacation. I guess many have now that option. But it's not good to loose hope, I know but for the future of my children i will consider doing so.
    In relation to the massacre in maguindanao, now the ampatuan's realized that they are not "gods"! That when it comes to killing people they will face justice, which we are hoping it will not be tainted since the ampatuans are clear allies to PGMA. In coming days or month's we will observed that the effort of the government on nailing the ampatuans will slow down and eventually forgotten. I know i sound negative but that's how justice works in this country. How many intrigues and controversies the present government have dissolved? I mean, you cant blame me of thinking that way. I hope i am really wrong.

    December 11, 2009 at 10:37 am | Reply
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