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Human Rights Watch: Arroyo-Aided Ampatuans “Owned the People”

November 16, 2010

Former president and now congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was responsible for the rapid rise of militia forces in Mindanao through the sale of military weapons to local politicians and other forms of political support, with the 2009 Maguindanao carnage as main proof to the past regime’s impotence to probe resulting crimes, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In its 96-page report titled “They Own the People: The Ampatuans, State-backed Militias, and Killings in Southern Philippines,” which was launched Tuesday in Quezon City, HRW investigated 50 more incidents of killings, sexual assaults, torture and abductions in Mindanao implicating the Ampatuans, whose “rise and expansion” were “aided” by then President Arroyo.

More than a year has lapsed after the barbaric slaughter of 56 people, including at least 30 media people, in Maguindanao province, the Philippine government failed to “seriously investigate atrocities by powerful ruling families, ban abusive militia forces, or curtail access of officials to military weaponry,” the HRW said in a report.

I stated in a previous blog the following:

Since the Ampatuans are close political allies of the President, they could easily mobilize all government resources, particularly the police service and the military, to their own advantage. A political leader who cannot discipline his/her own people is, without a doubt, an ineffective leader and has no right to govern a whole country.

Mrs. Arroyo is indirectly responsible for this unspeakable crime for issuing Executive Order 546, which allowed local officials to form the civilian volunteer organizations (CVO). As a result, political clans in Mindanao like the Ampatuans were sanctioned by an executive order to build their own private armies, allowing local officials and the PNP to deputize barangay tanods as “force multipliers” or additional reinforcement in the fight against insurgents.In essence, the executive order allows local executives to convert their private armies into legal entities called the CVO. The intent of the EO is good, which is to eradicate insurgents in the country, but to empower local officials or to indirectly give them the right to establish private armies, even if this is not mentioned explicitly in the law, is against the Constitution.

The Ampatuan massacre is prime example how the government failed its people and caused great social and political misery through its statist policies.

Here’s the summary of HRW’s controversial report:

In Maguindanao, the word of the Ampatuans was the law. It was either you said “yes” to [them], or you got yourself killed for daring to say “no.”

—Suwaib Upahm, Ampatuan militia member, March 9, 2010.

Warlordism exists because it has blessing from the top.

—Philippine academic, Mindanao State University, General Santos City, February 14, 2010.

On November 23, 2009, around 200 armed men stopped a convoy carrying family members and supporters of a local vice mayor in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao as they went to register his candidacy in upcoming gubernatorial elections. The gunmen forced the group of 58 people—which included some 30 media workers and six passersby, off the highway near the town of Ampatuan, ordered them from their vehicles, and executed them all.

The massacre—the worst in recent Philippines history—has since been attributed to members of the Ampatuan family, which has controlled life and death in Maguindanao province for more than two decades through a “private army” of 2000 to 5000 armed men comprised of government-supported militia, local police, and military personnel. Many members of the family, which is headed by Andal Ampatuan, Sr.—Maguindanao’s governor from 2001 to 2009—hold official posts in the province and region. Before the 2007 elections, most of Maguindanao’s 27 mayors were the sons, grandsons, or other relatives of Andal Ampatuan, Sr., including his son, Andal Ampatuan, Jr., who stands charged with 57 counts of murder in connection with the 2009 massacre. Ampatuan, Jr. is currently on trial in Manila for the killings, together with 16 police officers and two alleged militia members. Currently, 195 people have been charged, including 29 members of the Ampatuan family and their allies; over half of those charged remain at large.

While killings among ruling families in central Mindanao are not uncommon, the scale and brutality of the November 23 massacre far exceeded previous attacks in this violent region. It also focused international attention on ruling families like the Ampatuans, and the lawlessness that persists in much of the Philippines. Less scrutinized than the violence itself, however, but ultimately of greater significance, is the support that the national government provides such families throughout the country, and the near total impunity that their abusive militias enjoy. Successive national governments have not dismantled and disarmed these militia forces, as stipulated in the 1987 Philippine Constitution, nor have they investigated and prosecuted unlawful activities by those who control, arm, and use them for private ends. Indeed, rather than trying to prevent militias from carrying out criminal acts, the military and police often provide them with manpower, weapons, and protection from prosecution.

This report focuses on the Ampatuan family and its forces, one of the most powerful and abusive state-backed militias in the Philippines. It charts the Ampatuans’ rise and expansion, aided by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who relied on the family for crucial votes and support in the protracted armed conflict with Moro armed groups in Mindanao. The report also details the Ampatuans’ many abuses, including more than 50 incidences of killings, torture, sexual assault, and abductions and “disappearances.” In addition to the 58 killed in the Maguindanao massacre, the family is implicated over the years in the killing of at least 56 people, including relatives of opposition politicians, landowners who resisted forced acquisition of their property, eyewitnesses to Ampatuan crimes, including their own militia members, and even children.

One year after the Maguindanao massacre, the Ampatuans remain a powerful and dangerous force with which to be reckoned. For more than two decades, the Ampatuans operated unchecked by the national police, the military, and the Department of Justice, which have not only failed to seriously investigate crimes allegedly committed by the family’s militia, but have even armed and worked alongside its members. Despite an initial flurry of activity after the November 23 killings, including some arrests, 126 suspects remain at large and the government’s prosecution remains woefully slow and limited. Senior police and military officers who failed to act upon knowledge of Ampatuan crimes have not been investigated; investigations into the source of the family’s weapons have lacked transparency and independence; and the national institutions responsible for accountability—the Justice Department, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Commission on Human Rights—have done nothing significant to address the situation. “What can we do?” asked one police officer. “This is an influential family.”

In his successful campaign for the presidency this year, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III vowed to abolish the private armies that flourished under President Arroyo, who authorized the arming of Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) and Police Auxiliary Units, and allowed local government units to enter contractual arrangements with the military for barely trained militia forces called Special CAFGUs. Aquino also promised to hold accountable the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre, and seek justice for the hundreds of other victims of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. Aquino should fulfill these promises by taking immediate action to disarm and disband all militias, including state-sanctioned paramilitary forces, in Maguindanao and throughout the country. He should also institute tougher controls on local government procurement of weapons, and prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, regardless of position or rank.

Broad and lasting change will not come easily. Suspicious of police collusion, few victims or witnesses of crimes by government officials trust the country’s haphazard witness protection program. Many of the Ampatuans’ victims have never reported the abuses they have suffered at the hands of the family, which has long relied on threats and other forms of intimidation to build and maintain its power. Indeed, several victims and witnesses declined to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch, despite undertakings to protect their identities, because they feared retaliation by the family and its private army.

The term “private army” is commonly used in the Philippines to describe security forces of powerful politicians, wealthy landowners, and other private interests. The term is accurate in that it describes the loyalties of such forces—armed bodies that act on behalf of private, and not public, interests. As a result, human rights abuses committed by private armies are often dismissed as a manifestation of regional culture or an exhibition of rido, or clan conflict. But such explanations—and the very term “private armies”—fail to capture the state’s role in these forces’ make-up, support, and involvement in abuses.

According to individuals with knowledge of the Ampatuans’ force structure, most members of their private army are also members of the state-sanctioned paramilitary forces, namely the Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO), Police Auxiliary Unit, Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), or Special CAFGU Active Auxiliary. Their forces also include regular members of the police and military. Many are relatives of local government officials. Militia members, who receive virtually no training, swear allegiance to the family and operate without police or military supervision, as is required by law. The number of militiamen is limited only by the local government’s ability to fund operational costs.

The Ampatuans have provided their militia with formidable modern military weaponry. In the aftermath of the Maguindanao massacre, investigators recovered at least 1000 weapons in and around the homes of Andal Ampatuan, Sr. and Jr., including anti-tank weapons, mortars, machine guns, automatic pistols, and sniper and assault rifles, as well as tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Ampatuan-family insiders and police officers investigating the massacre say that the military and police provided the Ampatuans with most of these weapons, a situation facilitated by Philippine law, which permits local government officials to legally buy an unlimited number of weapons without any obligation to report the type or number purchased.

According to insiders, the Ampatuans used their militia for a wide range of criminal activity intended to eliminate threats to the family’s rule, or to warn anyone considering posing such a threat. Cases involving the Ampatuan militia forces include:

  • On July 20, 2005, about 25 armed men in military uniform shot and killed Haji Noria Tambungalan and her child in barangay Kitango. Her husband, Mando Tambungalan, said he recognized three of the armed men as hired killers on the Ampatuan payroll. He told Human Rights Watch that he has been targeted by the Ampatuans since running for vice mayor of Datu Piang in 2001.
  • On December 2, 2006, in Cotabato City, motorcycle-riding gunmen linked to the Ampatuan clan shot and killed Judge Sahara Silongan while he was driving his family home. A relative of the judge believes he was killed for failing to issue an illegal warrant of arrest demanded by the Ampatuans: “It was a form of liquidation.” No one has been arrested for the killing.
  • On June 23, 2006, the Ampatuans planted a bomb which exploded near the Shariff Aguak market, killing five people, including Ed Mangansakan. Mangansakan was a known weapons supplier for the Ampatuans. A man working as a CVO for the Ampatuans at this time told Human Rights Watch that Ampatuans’ men planted the bomb in order to get weapons purchased from Mangansakan for free.
  • On August 28, 2008, a cousin of Ampatuan, Jr., and his armed men allegedly shot and killed eight members of the Lumenda and Aleb families, including one child, as they harvested rice in barangayTapikan, in Shariff Aguak municipality. One gunman, a member of the Police Auxiliary Unit, told Human Rights Watch that he and the others were ordered to shoot the family because the Ampatuans doubted their loyalty.

Crimes linked to Ampatuan family members have not stopped since the Maguindanao massacre and the massive attention focused on the case and the region. A member of the family’s militia who participated in the killings—Suwaib Upahm, 27—told Human Rights Watch that he had killed a witness to the Maguindanao shootings with a grenade launcher several days after Ampatuan, Jr. was arrested by authorities. Upahm described himself as close to the Ampatuan family for most of his life and gave his statement to a private prosecutor, which was then submitted to authorities under a pseudonym. He was shot and killed on June 14, 2010, while still awaiting inclusion in the government witness program.

The private army of the Ampatuan family may be among the most abusive in the Philippines, but it is just one among many. More than 100 private armies, large and small, are estimated to be operating throughout the Philippines, primarily but not exclusively in rural areas, and often but not always where there is an active insurgency. The level of direct government support for these militias varies, but if the Ampatuan example is any indication, a history of abuses is no disqualifier. So long as such official support continues, so will these forces and the atrocities for which they have been responsible. The Maguindanao massacre was an aberration only because of how many people died, not because of its cold-blooded brutality, which the government, military, and police has long tolerated, and even fueled. Instead, the killings were an atrocity waiting to happen. It is up to the Aquino administration to ensure they are the last of their kind.

Key Recommendations

The Philippine government should urgently take measures to end serious human rights violations by “private armies” throughout the country, including the involvement of militias, paramilitary forces, police, and military personnel. It should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.

To the Aquino Administration

  • Issue an executive order banning all paramilitary and militia forces in the Philippines because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations. To accomplish this, systematically disarm all paramilitary and militia forces, end all private funding of such groups, and implement their staged reduction and disbandment.
  • Direct the National Bureau of Investigation to prioritize investigating alleged extrajudicial killings and other serious crimes that may involve government officials, or security and militia forces, particularly if they appear linked to broader criminal activity by local authorities.
  • Take all necessary measures, including reforming the witness protection program, to ensure the safety of survivors of serious crimes, witnesses, and families of victims and witnesses before, during, and after trial.
  • Order an appropriate government agency to investigate whether public funds have been unlawfully used for creating, arming, and supporting militia forces, and prosecute those responsible for doing so.
  • Submit a bill to Congress that prevents local government officials from selecting or dismissing police chiefs in their jurisdiction for private purposes, and discourage nepotism.

To the United States, Japan, European Union, Australia, and Other Concerned Governments

  • Press the Aquino administration to initiate investigations into alleged human rights abuses by local government officials and state-backed militia throughout the country, and to publicize investigation results and plans to dismantle paramilitary and militia forces.
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