Electoral Gore: Warlord Violence, Oligarchic Decay, and US Neocolonial Domination in the Philippines

The mass slaughter of 57 civilians in Maguindanao, the Philippines, on November 23 by a local warlord may seem a minor incident compared with the much more heinous destruction of whole villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan by US drones.  In the Philippines, however, it acquires symbolic density by the resonance of contextual historic factors linked to the US colonial occupation of the country from 1899 to 1946 and its neocolonial predicament today.  How is the US implicated in this massacre?

Three recent developments may be cited at the outset.  First, Barack Obama anointed the unpopular Philippine president Gloria Macapagal, during her visit to Washington early this year, as the privileged Asian “connection” in the war against Al-Qaeda, giving a stamp of approval to her corrupt and bloody rule.  Second, the impending 2010 elections in the Philippines may jeopardize US military-political maneuvers in the southern Philippines where organized Muslim separatists — specifically, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) existing side by side with the shadowy, diminutive Abu Sayyaf — have been made the pretext for regular US military operations.  Third, the US is playing both sides, supporting the traditional oligarchy’s elite rule while negotiating with the MILF for access to land and resources in the areas they control.  The role of the federally funded US Institute of Peace has been revealed in the latest negotiations between the MILF and the Arroyo regime.  While the rest of the Philippines’s natural resources have been depleted, its 90 million citizens subsisting on less than $2 a day, the southern island of Mindanao is close to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Singapore strait, providing a strategic location for force-projection of severely constrained US global power.

Its status as a former US colony also makes the Philippines sentimentally close to the thinking of the US plutocracy.  The Filipino ruling class is the only Asian group tutored by US advisors in US-style pragmatic liberalism for nearly a century, from 1899 up to the present.  Philippine business ethics and electoral politics follow US paradigms.  The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as well as police units continue to be trained, supervised, and equipped by the US.  Thus, while the country rivals Bangladesh in being an economic “basket case,” with 10 million Filipinos working abroad as domestics and other low-skilled contract workers, it is vitally central to Washington’s scheme to maintain global hegemony in the face of challenges by China, Iran, North Korea, and of course the terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia (Obama’s other favorite Asian nation-state).

Let us return to the barbaric massacre of 57 unarmed civilians (60 in a recent count) in broad daylight by the local warlord Ampatuan clan in Mindanao where hundreds of US Special Forces operate within AFP bases.  The facts have been repeated in numerous news reports: In preparing for the 2010 elections, a convoy of the Mangudadatu clan accompanied by media workers and women lawyers on the way to the capitol to register for elections was by halted by Philippine National Police (PNP) forces with hundreds of Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVO) supervised by the PNP.  Both PNP and CVO are led by the Ampatuans.  Together with other motorists passing by, they were directed to a farm road to be shot, the bodies of the women mutilated, and all (together with vehicles) buried in mass graves dug by machines owned by the provincial government headed by the patriarch, Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr.  His son Andal Ampatuan, Jr. is now charged for masterminding this brutal slaughter, on a national highway, in Sharif Aguak municipality controlled by the Ampatuan clan.  This murder of innocent civilians, given its circumstances, should rank as one postmodern example of “a crime against humanity.”  But, for many, it is just ordinary electoral gore.

Who are the Ampatuans?  While notorious in Philippine politics, this is their first entrance into a world stage of rogues (from Attila the Hun to George Bush and his neocon advisers).  When Gloria Arroyo wrested the presidency in 2001, Ampatuan Senior was a Congressman with a record of past collaboration with the military in fighting the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and Muslim guerillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the MILF.  His rise to power followed the contour of historic opportunities.  Soon he became a military-sponsored elected governor of Maguindanao whereby he was able to manipulate the electoral machinery to secure the winning votes for Arroyo in the 2004 elections.  This was repeated in the senatorial elections of 2007.  The Ampatuans gained the most favored spot in the Arroyo clique’s patronage system.

Consequently, the Ampatuan clan became the single dominating Muslim dynasty in Mindanao — except for Sulu Islands and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s staging ground.  Endorsed by Arroyo, Zaldy Ampatuan became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a bureaucratic category through which national funds are channeled, supposedly to improve the welfare of the Muslim population in those impoverished provinces.  The dynasty counts 18 officials in the government, including Zamzamin Ampatuan, Arroyo’s energy undersecretary.  But that is not as important as their control of the coercive machinery of government and their access to bureaucracy and all institutions of civil society.

Under the regime’s counterinsurgency plan, known as Oplan Bantay Laya, the undermanned and poorly equipped AFP and PNP deploy the old US tactic of using paramilitary groups, here the Ampatuans’ private army of about a thousand men.  They are legalized as members of the Citizens’ Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU) and CVOs.  During the emergency of 2006 when mass protests called for Arroyo’s resignation because of admitted cheating and other anomalies, Arroyo issued Executive Order 546 arming the CVOs and placing them under the Ampatuans’ control.  The Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Battalion as well as police units, together with tanks and firearms, also served the private interests of the Ampatuan clan.  All of these — personnel, weapons, ammunition, communication apparatus — were involved in the November massacre, with policemen themselves participating in murdering the civilians.

How do we clarify this complex of events and persons from a historical-materialist viewpoint?  Fierce class warfare and persisting US domination of local institutions explain the convergence of diverse political and social forces.  The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG), a local research group, provides a starting point by stating that the massacre displays “traditional politics at its madness.”  It describes how “the compact between the strong-arm president and political warlords results in the militarization of the civilian bureaucracy and breeds despotism that undermines civilian authority.  It transforms the local government system into purely electoral machinery for the mutual support and benefit among the powers-that-be.  It also converts many Local Government Units (LGUs) into instruments of counter-insurgency instead of being made to address the generational problems of poverty and social inequality” (quoted from Issue Analysis No. 14).  In effect, the culture of impunity — the extrajudicial killing, kidnapping, and torture of thousands of anti-Arroyo activists in the last ten years — can be accounted for by the toleration of warlordism and symbiotic political dynasties necessary to maintain entrenched oligarchic power, intensify the poverty of the majority, and perpetuate rampant social injustice.

One of the more systematic analyses of why Philippine-style elite democracy seems to sustain a self-regulating elite dominating the majority has been written by Prof. Temario Rivera.  In his essay “The Crisis of Philippine Electoral Democracy,” Rivera argues that while other developmental states in “the third world” succeeded in solving problems of “national unity, rules of political contestation, agrarian reform and other key issues of socioeconomic modernization,” this did not happen in the Philippines because “the political oligarchy propped up by American economic and military power survived or evaded these cataclysms and sidetracked the effective resolution of these key issues” (from Oligarchic Politics, ed. Bobby Tuazon, Quezon City 2007, p. 151).  The US plays a deeper role today in the production of what I call “electoral gore” by supporting antagonists and preserving the ideological supremacy of free-market neoliberal institutions and practices, including the retinue of organic intellectuals attached to corporations, universities, NGOs, and private think-tanks.

This neo-Weberian analysis, however, focuses on the weak, politicized administrative apparatus without attention to crucial economic and ideological factors.  Weber tried to explain feudalism as the “routinization of charisma” in which power was organized in a patrimonial manner.  Current American scholarship on the Philippines (from Stanley Karnow to Alfred McCoy) has been bogged down by this reifying approach, failing to account for the internal dynamics of the multiple historic forms of rent that Marx first analyzed.  Weber borrowed the idea from Marx, but obfuscated it by focusing on the system of enfeoffment by which serfs were exploited.  Weber also ignored the historic determinants of colonialism and neocolonialism.

Vassalage, modernized as clientelism or patronage, indeed still characterizes the behavior of political dynasties in the Philippines.  The “warrior ideal” (embodied by Amapatuan Jr., for example), hereditary succession, ritual obligation, and implied contract of mutual benefit still inform local political behavior, although reconfigured by globalizing business utilitarian techniques.  In the case of the Ampatuans, however, the central role of bureaucrat capitalism and comprador trade overshadows that of quasi-feudal ownership of land (mostly uncultivated due to war, corruption, etc.).  Traditional Islamic doctrines may underwrite customary practices but scarcely plays a role in preserving the Ampatuan politico-military stranglehold on territory.  The MILF has monopolized Islam for its ideological potential and occupied Maguindanao territory.  While rent and private landholding still yield surplus for dynastic luxuries, the parasitic dependence on funding by the national state (negotiated with the World Bank and foreign philanthropies), as well as USAID and other UN agencies, may be said to subsidize and enable the Ampatuan excesses. This supersedes patrimonialism.

The phenomenon is of course more complex than these notes might indicate.  Manila columnist Conrado de Quiros employs a somewhat mechanical “cause-effect” grid to explain the Ampatuan atrocity as an effect caused by Arroyo’s fascist crimes utilizing state power, in short, the culture of impunity often cited by Arroyo’s critics.  However, this culture which caused extrajudicial killings and corruption from Arroyo to the ordinary policeman cannot be defined simply as local mayhem and the Arroyo signature as the “epitome of warlordism.”  Institutional structures and historical practices cannot be reduced tout court to singular personalities.  Addressing the mechanisms of Moro political dynasty, Islamic scholar Julkipli Wadi takes account of plural causation.  He uses Basilan governor Wahab Akbar as a model of the postmodern hybrid dynasties, making the Amapatuans genealogical dinosaurs.  However, he discounts the historic force of US intervention in our history, including Moro history.

In a public statement (27 Nov 2009) as chairperson of the International League of People’s Struggle, Jose Maria Sison succinctly formulates the overriding influence of US hegemony as the framework within which the logic of the Ampatuan massacre can be grasped.  He reviews the organic links of Ampatuan power with the CAFGU, CVO, the AFP, and the PNP, national bureaucracy, counterinsurgency agencies, etc.  Except for its lack of elaboration on the imperial mechanisms of transmission (provided by other general studies of Moro society such as CENPEG’S The Moro Reader or Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria’s Under the Crescent Moon), Sison offers the left’s more comprehensive and substantial point of view on this specific event.  I can only quote his conclusion here:

The US has been the most culpable for whipping up state terrorism and vigilantism by local tyrants and by army and police commanders under the pretext of combating communists and Muslims who are unjustly labeled as terrorists. . . .  The US has provided the doctrine of warfare against the people and supplied the military equipment and training and other wherewithals of the reign of terror. . . .  Together with the Manila-based puppet government, local tyrants like the Amapatuans and all their military, police and paramilitary minions, the US is culpable and condemnable for pushing state terrorism and the gross and systematic human rights violations and emboldening the human rights violators to commit their crimes with impunity under the pretext of combating terrorism.

In sum, imperial interventions may be said to “overdetermine” if not thoroughly elucidate the local dynamics of surplus extraction and distribution of social wealth and its accompanying political-ideological apparatus enabling reproduction of the total social relations.  The full exposition of the political economy undergirding the Maguindanao massacre may have to wait for a trustworthy court investigation and trial of the suspects — the Ampatuan clan — which, judging from all accounts, may have to wait for the proverbial “kingdom come.”

In the meantime, I propose this structural explanation to understand the Maguindanao massacre and its future replication.  Political coercion in the neocolonial Philippines is nourished not only by the extraction of surplus product (value) from the labor of Filipino workers and peasants (including their Muslim counterparts) but also by the US-led global war on terror and its imperial ramifications in the Philippine conjuncture.  This war led by US finance capital applies to the Filipino diaspora (10 million strong) and the immigrant predicament of ethnic communities such as Mexicans, Arabs, Africans, and so on in the Global North (Europe, North America).  US citizens are implicated in the genocidal process occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  In the Philippines, several million tax dollars are spent every year to support the AFP in counterinsurgency operations against the MILF and the NPA, or whoever the regime labels “enemies of the state.”  They fund the killings and torture of Filipino citizens who dare to criticize the oligarchic system and resist globalized exploitation.

Few Americans know that the campaign against the alleged Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf has been used since 9/11 to legitimize the Visiting Forces Agreement.  This agreement (not ratified by the US Senate) allow US troops and their clandestine military operations in the country in violation of the Philippine Constitution.  This succeeds the Cold War strategy of suppressing any democratic move to eliminate the bases for class inequality, “failed state” symptoms, and regional fragmentation, using the Philippines as a springboard for interventions in Indochina, the Middle East, and Asia as a vital region of global profit-making (already documented by numerous studies).  With the Cold War mutating into the global war of terror against oppressed subalterns and indigenous communities, the Philippines became the second battlefront (after Afghanistan), though lately supplanted by Pakistan.  Still, as long as the Abu Sayyaf is deliberately fostered by a confluence of warlord/patronage politics and US clandestine maneuvers, one can expect more massacres in what William Blum (in Rogue State, 2005) regards as the United States’ longest-held colony on earth.

E. San Juan, Jr., emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies, is currently a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.  He was recently a Fulbright professor of American Studies at Leuven University, Belgium, and visiting professor of Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines.  His most recent books are From Globalization to National Liberation (University of the Philippines Press), In the Wake of Terror: Race, Nation, Class and Ethnicity in the Postmodern World (Lexington Books), Toward Filipino Self-Determination (SUNY Press), and Critique and Social Transformation(The Edwin Mellen Press).

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