Isles of fear

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The unparalleled act of barbarism that was the massacre of November 23 has been described as “politically motivated,” but that phrase imbues its purpose with a meaning it does not have and does not deserve. No price can ever be enough for a single human life, but here is a case in which at least 47 people have been killed, apparently in furtherance of nothing more than the intention of petty tyrants to remain in power and pelf in one of the country’s poorest provinces.

The abduction and murder of some 47 people, more than half of them journalists and media technicians, and many of them women, in Maguindanao is a new low even for Mindanao as well as the Philippines. It speaks volumes not only about the rot in a political system that tolerates brutes and murderers’ occupying public office so long as they can deliver the votes, and no matter if they maintain private armies made up of creatures more animal than human. It also provides the civilized world a sense of the levels of barbarism in these parts, for a precedent to which one has to look long and hard in the history of the planet.

Not only for its brutality, but also for the sheer senselessness of it, does the November 23 atrocity qualify for the outrage and condemnation of every man and woman of decency, and the strongest call for the immediate apprehension, trial and punishment of those responsible. But the government that pretends to run this country completely deserves the contempt of the rest of the world, with the Philippines’ having made it to the top of the list of countries where lives are cheapest and civilization at its lowest point. The butchers of November 23 and their masters are after all the deranged children of a culture where the obscene devotion to the pursuit of power not only knows no limits; it is also universally tolerated.

That 30 of those killed — several of whom were tortured, and some of the women among them raped — were journalists is bad enough. The November 23 mass murders have in one day bloated the number of journalists killed in the line of duty this year from three to at least 24, and added so many more to the 80 already killed in the Philippines since 1986. But what is worse is that whoever is responsible killed them and the wife, kin and followers of a local politician to prevent that politician from filing his certificate of candidacy and contesting an election that, when it’s done, and the votes miscounted, can’t possibly have any impact beyond the narrow borders of Maguindanao.

As barbaric as the method was and as mean as the aim, the killings are likely to trigger a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals that will raise even higher the levels of violence in Maguindanao, quite possibly in the rest of Mindanao, and even the entire Philippines itself. Violence has a way of begetting further violence, as Philippine experience so amply demonstrates. Indeed, the Maguindanao bloodbath was not only an attack on a local politician, on his supporters, and on journalists. It was also an attack on the tattered remains of Philippine democracy, in which free and peaceful elections have never been as urgent an imperative as today, and therefore on everyone else whose misfortune is to have been born and to have to live in these isles of fear.

Only the quickest and most decisive response in terms of arresting and bringing the perpetrators to court can prevent the November 23 killings from turning into one more incident to inspire the killers — of journalists, political activists, local officials, priests, women, lawyers and judges — who roam this country with impunity to keep on killing.

But I predict — as others who have been noting with alarm the tolerance and even encouragement of lawbreaking and murder that has characterized the Arroyo regime are likely to predict — that despite, or perhaps because, of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s declaration of a state of emergency in Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato in tacit admission that neither the military nor the Philippine National Police can cope with the situation without being armed with special powers, that most of the killers and the likely masterminds will literally get away with murder.

We’ve been down this road before. In the hands of the Arroyo regime the supposed solution a state of emergency is supposed to be has instead been a problem, an invitation to further violence and the abuse of the citizenry. The local military and police are widely known to be partial to certain groups, have even armed their goon squads, and are likely to harden that partisanship as election day approaches. Indeed policemen are said to have been part of the group of 100 thugs that waylaid the convoy the slain journalists were accompanying.

A state of emergency is a convenient cover for military and police partisanship. It provides them the legal excuse to prevent the media from covering the impact on the citizenry of the political rivalries, based on clan disputes, that haunt feudal Maguindanao and other areas of Mindanao, as well as the overall conduct of the elections there. Maguindanao after all is a factory of electoral fraud — the infinite source of the made to order votes that for decades has mocked Philippine democracy.

Mrs. Arroyo, lest some of us forget, won that province in 2004. In 2007 Maguindanao kingpins also delivered a 12-0 vote in favor of administration candidates for senator, and she expects her coalition, though crippled by mass defections and despite the surveys, to similarly win that province in 2010.

The Commander-in-Chief, in short, has a conflict of interest. Contrary to her duty to protect Filipino lives and prosecute lawbreakers, preventing the prosecution of her allies in Maguindanao or whitewashing the whole bloody mess is to her interest. That it isn’t to anyone else’s outside the ruling party and coalition — not to journalists nor to the ordinary citizen, and certainly not to democracy and press freedom — is of no moment to her and the ruling coalition. As unparalleled and unprecedented whether here or anywhere else in the world the November 23 carnage may be, the victims’ prospects for justice are likely to be as dim as a snowball’s chances of surviving hellfire.

(BusinessWorld)

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