On that eventful day of November 23, I went cold when I got the news that one of the 57 massacre victims was Atty. Cynthia Oquendo, a fellow activist, friend, and mother. The last time I saw her was when we had a small gathering a few weeks before: sharing a few drinks and friendly banters over sisig and crispy pata with a few college friends.
There was never any indication that that would be the last time I would see Cynthia, no black butterfly hovering around nor stories of goodbyes that in Cebuano folklore denotes a discreet premonition of one’s passing. We were there gathered, partaking of the cozy warmth of shared memories and the usual fare of how-are-yous sprinkled with a dose of political rhetoric. It was a nice albeit short night.
Many weeks later, there she was plastered on the frontpage: her voice muffled forever, body riddled with bullets, covered in dirt, dumped with 56 other bodies in a shallow grave dug using the Maguindanao provincial government’s backhoe. Brutalized. Dehumanized.
I browsed through various online analyses to understand the morbid logic behind these deaths and all other victims of political violence. I wanted to understand because in less than ten years, I have lost friends through a murderer’s barrel, Cynthia among them. There was Marvin Marquez, a youth activist and my son’s godfather, felled by sniper bullets in the hinterlands of Bohol. Another was Rev. Edison Lapuz, a human rights defender and an occasional house visitor, brutally assassinated while relaxing in his father’s house. There were also farmer-leader friends like Mayong Auxilio and Victor Olayvar, whom I met during my days as an agrarian reform volunteer, killed while preaching peasant rights to landless farmers.
Grief did gnaw at the soul for every passing of a dear friend. It made me reflect on this monster of a social structure that breeds and coddles sociopaths.
According to Mike Dobbie of the International Federation of Journalists: The Maguindanao massacre “is a culmination of the decades-long culture of impunity, where it’s been okay to kill journalists and nothing will ever happen — there will be no prosecution, there will be no trial..” Extrajudicial executions have been so rampant that the United Nations sent a team to investigate. In a 2007 report, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said that:
Since 2001 the number of politically motivated killings in the Philippines has been high and the death toll has mounted steadily. These killings have eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists, and land reform advocates, as well as many others on the left of the political spectrum. Of particular concern is the fact that those killed appear to have been carefully selected and intentionally targeted. The aim has been to intimidate a much larger number of civil society actors, many of whom have, as a result, been placed on notice that the same fate awaits them if they continue their activism. One of the consequences is that the democratic rights that the people of the Philippines fought so hard to assert are under serious threat.
The murders however went unabated even with strong international and local pressure exerted on the Arroyo government. From January to October of 2009 alone, KARAPATAN, a human rights organization, reported 78 extrajudicial killings of journalists and political activists raising the total to 1,119 victims under the Arroyo administration. For KARAPATAN, the blame squarely lies on the shoulders of the government:
In the first place, the massacre would not have happened had the AFP stopped supporting vigilantes and militiamen which it conveniently appropriates for its counter-insurgency program. It would not have happened had the PNP been serious in disbanding and dis-arming private armies as its billboard at Osmeña Boulevard brags. It would not have happened had the Gloria government junked the rule of the gun and its militarist Oplan Bantay Laya…These practices spawned a culture of lawlessness and worsening human rights violations across the land. Local warlords, like their national counterparts, impose their will as laws over their dominion. Worse, law enforcers, including military commanders, become warlords too.
Analysts point to a ‘weak’ or a ‘failed’ state as the structural cause for these deaths. Local elites like the Ampatuans ensure the political survival of national elites in exchange for largesse from the national coffer. To sustain this parasitism, any threat is muffled with weapons siphoned off from corrupt military brass. News reports relay that the Ampatuans maintain a weapons cache that could arm three full-sized battalions, replete with 60-mm mortars, machine guns, explosives, recoilless rifles, AK 47s, among others.
Truth be told, wherever political dynasties reign, a clan-owned military-supplied armory can surely be found. It comes as no surprise then that the massacre happened during the election period. Elections are often imagined as democratic exercises, instead these have become catalysts for intensified, and often violent, elite competition.
With Malacanang-pampered tinpot dictators spread all across the archipelago, the Ampatuan massacre will not be the last. Let’s just pray that no one we know will be the next victim. Again.