Under the Lord’s Shadow
By JES AZNAR
His face and hair all white from the millions of husks coming out of the growling mill, seven year old Akmad crawled under the machine to get a morsel of corn. It was harvest season for some who were lucky enough to have land and crops in Maguindanao. Also for Ishmael and his siblings and neighbors, it was time to rush and salvage what they can from waste spewed out by the corn mill. If they gather enough throughout a day, it means that they will have something warm inside their stomachs for dinner.
Food is scarce among Maguindaoans with little access to land and the means of production. The province stands as one of the poorest in the country albeit its abundance in natural resources and billions of funds coming from the national government through internal revenue allotment, public works budget, and other funds. With five in every six resident living under less than a dollar a day, families like Akmad’s hopes or look for better economic prospects to survive.
For most of these families living in Maguindanao, poverty is not just the only problem they have to deal with, a condition made even worse by armed conflict, whether between government forces and rebels, or between feuding clans. Centuries of war with colonial powers like Spain and the US, land-grabbing problems, gave birth to secessionist groups like the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, further isolating the island from development. Armed confrontations between the government and Moro armed groups have resulted in the death of an estimated 120,000 people, mostly civilians, and the displacement of some two million more.
As armed confrontations loom throughout the year, residents declare that it is more important to acquire guns than food. For most of the children in this region, growing up with a gun is quite normal. A local teacher in an elementary school says he had his share of witnessing children from impoverished families come and go. He says there’s always a time in a year were students would just disappear. “They either have gone to join the rebels or joined the paramilitaries serving local politicians or Datus. They don’t find school important for their survival perhaps.”
A Datu is a revered position in these villages, it is the title given to chiefs and leaders and were limited only to families of royal descent.”Its easy to become a Datu in Maguindanao these days.” says an elderly resident. “But now, if you can feed and arm ten families, then you can become a Datu.”
Tata Uy, a Datu who started from being a follower of his uncle, Samir Uy, the town Mayor in Datu Piang town, then later on decided to run for office, defying his uncle’s wishes. He began forming his own militia, spending $65,000 to buy 45 weapons over the years and recruiting 40 men, including some who worked on his land.
“I provide for my men” says Datu Tata Uy, while displaying the high powered rifles of his 20 or so men resting inside a mosque after a day of campaigning for the upcoming elections. Datu Uy is one of the many clan leaders in the area contending for a seat in the coming election. Challenging the rule of the incumbent mayor and his uncle Samir Uy, he says he needs his men and high-powered weapons for his protection. He says he recently sold two of his farm tractors to be able to buy artilleries and ordnances to keep up with his rivals. “Only if I have more funds, I’d buy two more,” he adds.
Local government offices are vast sources of funds. In 2009, Maguindanao secured $80.7 million from the national government’s Internal Revenue Allotment. This rose even more to $84.1 million in 2010 according to Mindanews. The Local Government Code of 1991 provides that 40 percent of national internal revenues shall go to local governments. Of this 40 percent, the provinces get 23 percent; cities, 23 percent; municipalities, 34 percent; and barangays, 20 percent.
With this amount of funds allotted and the elections for these local offices held every four years, the competition is tough.
For the 2013 mid-term and local elections in Maguindanao, there are a total number of 400 candidates for the various elective seats in the province as reported by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. 80 of which, belong to the Ampatuans. The clan, headed by its patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., is the prime suspect behind the killing of the wife of his former associate, Toto Mangudadatu who decided to compete with him for the governor’s post in the then coming elections. More than 50 other people were killed on that same event.
Ampatuan first strong grip to power came in 1986 when he was installed by then Philippine president Cory Aquino to take charge of Maganoy town (now Shariff Aguak) because of party affinity. He then competed for reelection two years later and subsequently won, while also at the same time charged for the murder of his poll rival, Surab Abutasil. He served unopposed for ten years as mayor and eventually won as the province’s governor in 1998.
Ampatuan’s infamy in winning polls unopposed gained him the friendship of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who at that time was running for re-election for the country’s top post. As the result turned up in 2004, Arroyo received statistically improbable numbers in Maguindanao. In at least two towns in the province, Arroyo won all the votes cast in the election, while the hugely popular movie actor, the late Fernando Poe Jr., got zero votes. Andal Sr. had also promised a 12-0 sweep for Arroyo’s senatorial lineup, and he delivered.
With 334,287 registered voters as of 2010, Maguindanao is the richest in votes in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
Election day brings a festive air in Maguindanao, with men and women dressed in their best tribal attire and troop in swarms to polling precincts. Shoulder to shoulder, sweat rubbing against sweat, people try to squeeze through the door of a public school’s classroom housing the automated counting machines and ballot boxes to cast their votes. Uniformed military men seem not to mind several men in civilian clothes that are armed with protruding pistols in their hips and make themselves visible enough for them to be seen by every voter entering the room–enough to send a strong reminder to each voter which names to shade in their ballots.
A long stretch of an almost empty highway separates a handful of sprawling mansions on one side from the rows of tiny shacks and bunkhouses on the other side. Women in their ankle-length dark clothes and veil-covered faces endure the mid-day sun carrying anything from chopped wood to sacks of laundry while walking behind males riding carabaos. Children are running and chasing each other with toy guns, all of them thrilled. Gigantic fences protecting the mansions of the governor, Andal Ampatuan Sr, dwarf their presence. For families like Akmad’s, it’s scene of everyday life in this part of Mindanao.