It just gets worse

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 10, 2009

Nearly two weeks after the massacre of 57 innocent men, women, and children allegedly at the hands of an administration-backed warlord with the support of vigilantes, police officers, and members of the armed forces, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared martial law in the poverty-stricken, violent province of Maguindanao. To justify the controversial declaration, Ms. Arroyo’s government cited a brewing rebellion led by supporters of the suspected perpetrators of the massacre.

A local mayor intent on running for governor of Maguindanao next year, Andal Ampatuan, Jr., is believed to have organized and led the massacre. His brother Zaldy-who is governor of a five-province autonomous region of the Philippines-and his father Andal, Sr.-the current governor of Maguindanao-have also been arrested along with 62 others. Military raids on Ampatuan family mansions and other properties have turned up large caches of military firearms.

News of the massacre was met with worldwide condemnation and dismay, travel alerts by concerned governments, and suspension of aid projects. Although international media have consistently noted that the violence took part in the troubled southern Philippines far from major business hubs, the close association of the administration with the Ampatuans has also been regularly reported. So too is the strong showing of Ms. Arroyo in Maguindanao in the 2004 national elections despite running against an opponent who fared far better in surveys.

As a result, the Philippines is highly visible in global media for all the wrong reasons-again. According to reports, the administration is seeking to gain support from allied and friendly governments for its resolve. However, aside from travel warnings, there is little of consequence to show for that effort, which began over the weekend. Martial law was declared late Friday night, and announced to the public the following day. Military officials have recommended that it be extended until May when national elections take place.

Diplomats appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Media reports clearly show that the Ampatuans have ruled Maguindanao for nearly a decade with the support of Ms. Arroyo’s administration. That provides a strong argument that her government fostered the circumstances that led to the bloody massacre and the brazen-and incompetent-attempted cover up. To generate goodwill in the international community, Ms. Arroyo will have to accept responsibility for the conditions that led to the violence, and that have kept the province mired in poverty amid crumbling and non-existent infrastructure and woefully inadequate delivery of other constituency services.

She will also need to credibly explain how national elections can take place in a free and transparent manner under martial law if it does not end soon. Ms. Arroyo’s publicly anointed successor, Gilbert Teodoro, is a reserve colonel in the Philippine Air Force and he was secretary of defense until resigning last month to prepare his run for the presidency. Mr. Teodoro is far behind in surveys, but no matter how he and the other candidates perform in Maguindanao under martial law, the results will be suspect. A win for Mr. Teodoro would likely be greeted with intense skepticism, even if his survey ratings improve.

The response of local and international investors to the declaration of martial law is mixed. The Makati Business Club -an association whose membership consists of large domestic corporations and multinationals-believes decisive action was necessary, but didn’t require a declaration of martial law. The Management Association of the Philippines has called on the president to immediately rescind the declaration. But the Philippine Chamber of Commerce & Industry is supportive, saying “the Mindanao business sector welcomes the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao.”

A spokesperson for the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) said martial law was acceptable to “clean up the mess, get the murderers in jail and disarm warlords fast.” However, ECCP executive vice president Henry J. Schumacher warned, “If it fails, the damage to the country will be huge.” American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines executive director Robert M. Sears said, “The sooner it is resolved and the sooner they sort this out, the better the message will be to the international community.”

Given the decades-long violence in many parts of Mindanao and specifically in Maguindanao, chances that these long-festering issues are going to be dealt with quickly are incredibly slim. While the military eventually moved decisively to arrest alleged perpetrators of the massacre, those arrests are symptomatic of the region’s problems, and don’t provide a solution. Ms. Arroyo’s plummeting ratings and lame duck status suggest that she will struggle to achieve popular support for her actions.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, they have. Now the question is: Can things be turned around?

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