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MAGUINDANAO, Philippines, Dec 3 2009 (IPS) - In an instant the Philippines emerged as the world’s most dangerous place for journalists, effectively displacing Iraq, which, until the massacre in an impoverished town in southern Philippines, held that dubious distinction.
The Philippines had previously occupied the fourth spot, next to Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
A day after the gruesome killing of at least 57 innocent civilians in Maguindanao province—located some 1,000 kilometres south of Manila—the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists dubbed the Philippines “the most dangerous place in the world for media workers.”
On Nov. 23, at least 60 individuals were sprayed with bullets—and made to suffer unimaginable atrocities before being buried in shallow graves—en route to the office of the Commission on Elections in Shariff Aguak, the capital of the province.
Tagged as the prime suspect in the cold-blooded murders in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao is the son of the province’s political patriarch—Andal Ampatuan, Jr., 39, and current mayor of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao— against whom vice-mayor Ishmael Mangudadatu of Buluan town in the same province was set to run as governor in next year’s elections.
Mangudadatu—having previously received death threats that he claimed came from the Ampatuan clan since he was vying for the gubernatorial post to be vacated by the elder Ampatuan—sent his wife, accompanied by a retinue of supporters, to file his certificate of candidacy, confident that the time-honored Muslim tradition of respecting women would hold sway over potential assailants. But he was deathly wrong.
“Women, lawyers and journalists—no one escaped the butchers’ wrath. The murderers had planned the deed, down to the mass burial of victims. That is the mark of the untouchable,” said NUJP.
“The Ampatuan massacre not only highlights the capacity for abuse by a political clan that has acted as ruler, judge, jury and executioner in its feudal turf; it is the graphic proof that State forces actually abet crime and protect criminals who provide favors for government officials.”
Other media groups, within and outside the country, were quick to denounce the killings.
“The massacre of journalists in Maguindanao staggers our community. It is a crime of such scale and horror that is incomparable to anything we have seen,” said a joint statement issued by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange. “We are especially appalled by the most recent media reports that at least 28 of those killed in the province of Maguindanao on 23 November 2009 were journalists.”
Gavin O’Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, called it “an act of savagery that has written one of the blackest pages in the history of the world’s press” in an international gathering this week of media publishers in Hyderabad, India.
The journalists who died in the bloody assaults were invited to cover what had been described as one of the most important events in Maguindanao’s recent political history, since hardly anyone had dared go against its “political warlords” in previous elections.
The other slain victims included the wife, kin and lawyers of Mangudadatu. The prompt denunciations of the killings by media groups all over the world only serve to highlight the extent of human rights violations in a country that has not only been dubbed the most dangerous place for journalists but has likewise been declared a dangerous place for ordinary civilians based on the country’s record of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other forms of abuses.
Many have asked: If women and journalists could become the targets of wanton killings, is anyone still safe in a country that prides itself on being a bastion of democracy in Asia?
This year, the International Trade Union Confederation ranked the Philippines first in Asia and third globally in terms of the number of trade union members killed in 2008, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world even for laborers.
The latest round of savage killings in the country further served to exemplify the magnitude of human rights abuses in the Philippines and the inability—if not apathy, in the view of some—of the government to reverse the cycle of violence in the country.
The barbarous killings in Maguindanao have unmasked its political dynasty that for far too long has lorded over a province where the scale of savagery is matched only by the impunity with which many say it is committed and where the extent of alleged corruption has hounded the ruling clan since it took over the reins of power.
Maguindanao is considered the second poorest province in southern Philippines and the poorest in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), where half of the estimated three million population languish in extreme poverty. The governor of ARMM—composed of five of the country’s predominantly Muslim provinces, including Maguindanao—is Zaldy Ampatuan, older brother of Ampatuan, Jr.
Monday’s mayhem, although of a scale unmatched by previously reported atrocities in the province, was far from unprecedented.
In 2003, shortly after the death in an explosion of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, another of the 30 or so sons sired by four wives of the Ampatuan patriarch, Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan, Sr., a number of people suspected of complicity in his son’s death were murdered in a manner not unlike the bestiality perpetrated late last month.
The Ampatuans reportedly blamed the explosion—and the favorite son’s death—on the Moro International Liberation Front (MILF), a Muslim separatist rebel group based in Mindanao. The MILF was said to have an axe to grind against the Ampatuans, known throughout Mindanao to have supported the national government’s all-out war against the Muslim secessionists in 1998 under the administration of former President Joseph Estrada, Arroyo’s predecessor.
MILF denied they were behind the explosion that killed Datu Saudi. Individuals suspected of involvement in the attack against Datu Saudi—then mayor of Datu Piang, still another town in the province—and the others who died with him were targeted for annihilation. And vanish many of them did, who numbered about a hundred. Those that managed to escape the perpetrators’ wrath did so by the skin of their teeth.
A top official of a government agency in Central Mindanao, whose vehicle was spotted at the site of the deadly explosion, fled his home soon after receiving a warning that he was ‘next in line’. The official’s relative who was on board the vehicle was killed a few days later by unidentified assailants who were linked to the Ampatuans.
The vehicle was passing along Datu Piang-Shariff Agua, where the explosion happened.
The Nov. 23 Maguindanao massacre had similarly claimed the lives of innocent civilians who happened to be passing the Shariff Aguak-Ampatuan highway in Maguindanao at the time of the bloodbath. They readily incurred the ire of the heavily armed men for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
*This is the first of a two-part series on the Nov. 23 massacre in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines.
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