THE 2009 Ampatuan town or Maguindanao Massacre provoked, among other reactions, a warning that the Philippine state is on the verge of failure, or might have already failed.

The Failed States Index of a US-based organization called the Fund for Peace was suddenly on many people’s lips as well as in some columns and blogs. The Index is an annual monitor of some 178 countries, which it ranks according to how high the threat of state failure is: red for “alert,” meaning the states in the category have already failed; orange for “warning,” meaning the states so labeled display some of the indicators of state failure and could fail unless it takes appropriate steps; pale orange for states under “moderate” threat of failure; and green for states that are “sustainable.”

The Philippines is listed in the “warning” category, together with 91 other countries which include Laos and Rwanda, Indonesia, Cambodia and Costa Rica. China, where one would think the state is firmly in control, is listed in the same category, as is Malaysia. The United States is listed in the “moderate” category, together with most of the countries of Europe, as well as Asian states like South Korea and Singapore.

But the Index lists states according to the degree of their actual or impending failure, or their sustainability. The Philippines was 54th in 2009 in the overall listing — up from 59th in 2008, which brought it closer to the first 39 countries, led by Somalia, listed as failed states. It was 15th in the warning category, which for 2009 was headed by Syria, which was in 40th place over all.

The states are classified on the basis of such social indicators as mounting demographic pressures; massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons which create complex humanitarian emergencies; and legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia resulting in chronic and sustained human flight.

The economic indicators are limited to “uneven economic development along group lines” and “sharp and/or severe economic decline”. The political indicators are more numerous: criminalization or delegitimization of the state; progressive deterioration of public services; suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights; the security apparatus’ operating as a ‘state within a state;’ the rise of factionalized elites’ and intervention of other states or external political actors.

It’s obvious why the Ampatuan Town Massacre, during which 57 people including 32 journalists and media workers were killed, and which was allegedly perpetrated by some 100 members of the Ampatuan private army, should have provoked observations that the Philippines is a failing state or has already failed.

The existence of private — or more appropriately, privatized, since they spring from the paramilitary formations organized, trained and funded by the Philippine military — the existence of privatized armed groups in the Philippines is a leading indicator of lawlessness, chaos and state weakness.

The Philippine government’s loss of control over these groups, has also strengthened independent military power in the Philippine countryside, which helps explain why the Arroyo government, which was supposed to have command over the military, still had to woo even the most brazen violators of human rights among the officer corps, whose support it needed to stay in power.

The allegiance of some of the armed clans all over the country, estimated to be over a hundred, it managed to hold by, among other means, entering into political alliances with them at the local level, where the same clans lord it over the citizenry as independent powers.

It’s not supposed to happen, but it does, primarily because the political elite that emerged out of the US colonial period, and which has ruled the country since, recognizes no interest except its own. The extra judicial killings the madmen of the Arroyo regime thought could stop exposure of and protests against official wrongdoing was for example in no other service except that of greed. But the killings were made to appear necessary to stop an armed social movement that in the first place would not have flourished had the Philippines been a better place. It could also be argued that by attacking the citizenry, which was the exact opposite of its constitutional mandate, the Arroyo watch was criminalizing the state.

A number of the indicators the Failed States Index has identified do apply to the Philippines. These indicators include unrestrained population growth, thanks to, among others, institutions such as the Catholic Church, which look at contraception as murder, but not the death of babies and children from disease and starvation.

However, as accurately as the failed states concept may describe countries like the Philippines, the United States monitors states for signs of failure in behalf of its war on terrorism. Failed and failing states are the fertile breeding grounds for armed groups such as the Taliban and the Abu Sayyaf, most of which end up threatening US economic and strategic interests, thus the monitor.

And yet the failing states concept could serve the interests of the populations of the countries in the watchlist, through the failed state indicators’ serving as a warning that social, economic and political reform, even revolution, is imperative if a country’s march to the precipice is to be averted. Filipinos need not buy into the idea that they must arrest their country’s impending demise to keep it safe for US interests. Rather should their awareness of their country’s condition drive them to address the vast problems that confront them, through collective action as well as, in the present instance, keeping up the pressure for change on the new government.

Seeing to it that the Ampatuan Massacre is resolved, meaning with the perpetrators and masterminds successfully tried and punished, would be a good start at restoring the capacity of the justice system to provide the reason (justice) for its existence, and at dismantling the “states within the state” that warlord rule has established all over the country. A result otherwise would confirm fears that the country’s descent to chaos is irreversible.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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