At a time when even war itself strives to be humane, the carnage that killed 57 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao, shocked people beyond words, not only because of the scale and brutality of the attacks but also because the targets had been unarmed: political supporters who were out to file a nomination for the upcoming elections, journalists who were out to cover the story, even innocent motorists who happened to be at the same checkpoint at the wrong time.
That high-powered firearms were used against the victims at close range, obliterating the faces and the identity of many of them, and that there was an attempt to systematically cover up the crime, point to a culture of impunity in Maguindanao.
The perpetrators obviously thought that they could get away with their atrocity. The only possible explanation for such impunity is that these people were confident somebody higher up would protect them.
We hold the regime of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo accountable for what happened in Ampatuan. It was her regime that had benefited from the reign of terror in Maguindanao. It was her regime that had encouraged and nurtured the violence that led to the massacre.
It was her regime that circumvented the constitutional ban on private armies by issuing Executive Order 546 in 2006 that allowed local officials to become warlords. It was this EO that legalized the arming of so-called civilian volunteers that not only serve as thugs to abusive officials but also go after insurgents and became the military’s instrument to stifle dissent and harass people.
It was her regime that, desperate to cling to power, had benefited from the massive vote buying and election cheating in Maguindanao in the 2004 and 2007 elections. This is the reason Arroyo, amid calls for justice for the victims of the Ampatuan massacre, could not move swiftly against the monster she had created.
The carnage in Ampatuan crossed so many lines. It was an assault on press freedom. It was an assault on the people’s democratic, civil and political rights. It was an assault on women. It was an assault on the basic right to live, which has often been trampled upon with impunity in different parts of the country.
The people of Maguindanao have been silenced by this reign of terror and have long been deprived of a choice of leaders. This reflects what is happening in the entire country, where the Arroyo regime, hounded by questions of legitimacy, had unleashed terror under its Oplan Bantay Laya program to stifle criticism and legitimate dissent.
It is the same administration that had brushed aside the extrajudicial killings of activists and had, instead, publicly praised and promoted military officials known for their records of human right-abuses.
As the circus that marks elections in the Philippines threatens to steal our attention away from the Ampatuan massacre, we join the call of our colleagues for an independent investigation and a separate court to try this case. We also call for the dismantling of all private armies, which have been sowing terror in the communities, and not only during election time.
As investigators leave the scene of the carnage to bring the cases against the perpetrators to court, as the bodies of our slain colleagues are buried, as we seethe in outrage and as we grieve, let us not put the issue to rest.
Until justice is served, let us not forget.
(This pooled editorial, drafted by Davao Today, is published by progressive and alternative media outlets in the Philippines.)