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A typhoon of a different sort

11:49 PM November 26, 2013

NEW YORK—These past three weeks, the world’s attention has been focused on the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda, in the Eastern Visayas. The strongest storm on record to have made landfall, with winds in excess of 195 mph, it felt like, according to one survivor, as though a tsunami and an earthquake combined with ferocious winds to unprecedented deadly effect. The death toll has exceeded 5,000 and is expected to rise.

Ormoc City in the aftermath of Super Typhoon “Yolanda”. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Bill Godbout

Filipinos are a resilient lot, if nothing else, and will cope with just about anything the elements will throw at them. They know it would be pointless to fulminate against a typhoon. How exactly does one reprimand the Pacific Ocean, or demand of Mother Nature that she stop her wrathful visitations on an archipelago that doesn’t come close to being a major cause of global warming, almost certainly the key factor in how such freak storms come about?

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But these last days of November, even as we mourn the loss of lives and start the long and painful—and astronomically expensive—process of rebuilding, and even as many commemorate the assassination of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago in Dallas, we also need to remember that the country keeps getting hit by a different, and more pernicious, typhoon, one that may not express itself in wind and torrential rain but nevertheless takes its toll of human lives, usually from the same class as the most of victims of Haiyan/Yolanda: the underclass.

It is a typhoon called warlordism, wherein politics, especially on the regional level, is another name for war. Nothing symbolizes this more eloquently, and more tragically, than the fact that a little more than four years ago, on November 23rd, 2009, 58 men, women, and children in Maguindanao Province were slaughtered.

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That massacre targeted the family members of Esmael Mangudadatu, on their way to file his candidacy papers for governor ahead of the elections slated in 2010. But it also resulted in the killings of people who happened to be passing by in their vehicles, as well as 32 journalists accompanying the Mangudadatu party. The murderous intent was to leave no witnesses to the carnage. But there were witnesses and there is incriminating evidence, all but conclusive, that points to the private militia of the politically powerful clan, the Ampatuans, then in power, and who today still control many of the province’s towns.

The convoy of the Mangudadatus was made up predominantly of women and children, as it was believed this would prevent any attempts to harm the travellers. But no such consideration, whether Islamic, Christian, or any other conscience-driven objection, prevented the gunmen from leading all to a nearby hilltop and there executing them in cold blood, with reports that some of the women were sexually molested.

I remember my revulsion and outrage at reading about it in The New York Times and seeing photographs of the crime scene and of the mass graves where most of the innocent dead were buried. The graves were dug up by a provincial government backhoe—the governor then was an Ampatuan—then operated by a certain Bong Andal, who told prosecutors that he saw the Ampatuan hitmen shoot and kill the victims. He himself is one of the accused.

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These grisly facts were once again brought to the fore when a report on the fourth anniversary, written by Carlos Conde of the Philippine office of Human Rights Watch (HRW),  reminded us of “the glacial pace of judicial proceedings against alleged perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre.” As of this writing, no one has been found guilty. The trial has not yet begun in any serious way, continually delayed by procedural motions filed by defense lawyers. And so justice delayed is justice denied.

The HRW report goes on to describe the crime as “the worst single attack against members of the media in history and one of the Philippines’ worst single incidents of political violence.” Andal, a principal witness is fearful for his life as well as those of his kin. Again, from Conde’s report: “The threat was unambiguous. If Bong Andal testified against one of the Philippines’ most powerful political families about their alleged involvement in the November 23, 2009 massacre … his family would suffer. ‘They came again last month, showing our pictures to my relatives, letting them know that they’re watching us,’ Andal told me by phone this week.

“Four years later, the case is in effective judicial limbo. A total of 94 suspects remain at large.  Bail petitions and testimony challenges by the defense lawyers of the 101 suspects in custody have overwhelmed the court.

“But the problem of the Maguindanao massacre case is more than a failure of judicial process. It is about whether those threatening Bong Andal rather than the authorities control the proceedings. It’s a cruel reminder to activists, journalists, and politicians critical of the status quo that they too might be targeted with impunity. The human rights rhetoric of the government of President Benigno Aquino III has not transformed the dangerous reality on the ground. As Aquino enters the last half of his six-year term in office, he should recognize that he will be ultimately judged by his actions, not his words.”

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A superstorm such as Haiyan/Yolanda cannot be brought before any human court and tried. We bow before such a powerful and elemental force, grieve over our dead as we bury them, and carry on as before. But we can certainly bring to trial the human perpetrators of one of the country’s worst crimes. Yet, it would seem that in its attitude towards the Ampatuan case, and in the innumerable unresolved instances of human rights crimes, the national government behaves as though these too were the acts of unstoppable forces. For all the talk of robust economic growth, and the diminution of corruption, at least on a national scale, the administration, as with previous ones, has proven to be inept in protecting human rights especially in the provinces. If no justice for the Maguindanao victims of 2009 is served by the time Aquino’s term is up, his administration will have been complicit in allowing such inhuman acts to stand.

As the Conde report puts it, “The massacre remains a shameful exemplar of impunity in the Philippines.”

Copyright L.H. Francia 2013

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