By the time I visited in mid-March, there was almost nothing left to show what had happened on this red gash of earth in the southern Philippines. The bodies had long been removed. So had the banana leaves that police had hastily used to cover the victims once they had been dug from their shallow graves. All that remained on the lonely hillside, surrounded by palms and gently undulating slopes, were a few strands of yellow police tape, twisting in the tall talahib grass.
The crime scene was no longer cordoned off. But it was still deemed too dangerous to visit alone. I had come with an escort of nine rather bored-looking soldiers from the Philippine army. As we drove up the winding dirt track towards the massacre site, they scanned the hillsides with their M-16 rifles. Apart from the police tape, the only clue to what had happened four months earlier was a plastic banner. It had curled upon itself in the heat, making it impossible to read. When a colleague unravelled it, the short entreaty to the 57 victims came into view: “You may rest in peace while we seek justice.”
Even by the violent standards of Filipino democracy, the massacre of so many unarmed civilians – mainly women and journalists – was a shocking affair. The scale of the murders sparked vigils nationwide and angry denunciations of the powerful families that still act with near impunity in parts of this strung-out archipelago of 90 million people. The women had been travelling to register the candidacy of their male relative for governor of Maguindanao province, part of the semi-autonomous Muslim region of Mindanao, more than 600 miles south of Manila. The assumption had been that a convoy of women would be safe. It proved a fatal miscalculation.
According to accounts of the killings in court testimony, the vehicles in which the women and journalists had been travelling were stopped by a group of armed men. The convoy was diverted off the main road up the dirt track that I later followed. After about 2km, the vehicles stopped and the killing began. Once everyone was dead – witnesses say the bodies were mutilated, and some beheaded – the killers used a mechanical digger to cover the corpses with a layer of earth.
The armed men who carried out these atrocities were allegedly working for the Ampatuan clan, which rules the province like a fiefdom. Like many other families in the country’s more lawless parts, they maintained heavily armed private armies. These militias are often condoned by the state, which regards them as a way of protecting communities from rebels and criminals. Many of the towns in the region are named after the Ampatuans. The mansions they own dot the landscape, their walled extravagance in sharp contrast to the shacks and tumbledown houses in which most of their supporters live. Andal Ampatuan Sr, the patriarch now charged with murder, was then governor of Maguindanao. (He has since been stripped of his post, but is running for vice-governor from prison all the same.) His son, Andal Ampatuan Jr, the alleged ringleader, has been charged with mass murder. Both father and son deny the charges. “Junior” was even permitted to hold a press conference from the maximum security prison in Manila where he is being held. “Allah knows that I am innocent,” he said.
On May 10, the massacre notwithstanding, the election for Maguindanao governor will proceed as planned. It will be held alongside elections for 17,000 other local and national posts up and down the island chain, and in parallel with a poll to pick the Philippines’ next president, half its Senate and the entire House of Representatives. For those still living, it will be a veritable festival of democracy.
It would be wrong to read too much into one gruesome incident that took place in a troubled part of the Philippines, haunted by four decades of separatist rebellion and known for its almost tribalistic allegiances. But the Maguindanao massacre crystallises, albeit in extreme and graphic terms, the suppurating problems of Philippine democracy. The Philippines has all the trappings of a democratic system, including a rambunctious press, regular elections and a nominally independent judiciary. In recent months, the streets of its villages, towns and cities have swarmed with election posters and echoed to the vibrant sounds of election rallies. But as in many Latin American countries, to which the Philippines bears some resemblance, the mechanics of voting and the trappings of freedom have not brought the mass of Filipinos the fruits of democracy that are their due. Power continues to be exercised through violence and privilege, sometimes through an unholy alliance of the two. Elections, particularly at local level, can be bought. Even genuinely popular leaders – including the late Cory Aquino, whose People Power revolution swept away dictatorship in 1986 – have failed to make a noticeable difference to most Filipinos’ lives.
The disappointment of the Philippines is partly economic. In the 1950s, the country took pride of place alongside Japan as the Asian economy widely thought most likely to succeed. A recent American colony, full of English speakers, it was thought to have the modern institutions necessary to prosper. One Filipino I met recalls being surprised that members of an Indonesian dance troupe visiting Manila in the 1950s rushed to buy stockings from one of its American-style department stores. In those days, such luxuries weren’t available in most of Asia. “At that time, South Korea was all rice fields and the houses were walled with mud and roofed with thatch,” he remembers of a country whose per capita income is now more than 10 times higher than his own.
Not only are most Filipinos poor, with a nominal per capita income of $1,750, according to the International Monetary Fund. (That compares with $3,950 for Thailand, a country hardly devoid of problems, $7,000 for Malaysia and $17,000 for Taiwan.) Its income is also extremely skewed, even by Asia’s spectacularly inegalitarian standards. Two-fifths of Filipinos live on less than $2 a day. In Manila, much of the population is crowded into heaving shanty towns of the sort portrayed in the violent and uncompromising films of Brillante Mendoza, the acclaimed Filipino director. In the countryside, the absence of land reform of the sort that underpinned modernisation in Japan and South Korea, has left vast tracts of land in the hands of a few ultra-rich families. Even Aquino, for all her populist appeal, balked at giving up the wealth her family had amassed from its ownership of enormous sugar plantations.
Such is the lack of economic opportunity that an astonishing eight million Filipinos – almost one in 10 – finds employment abroad. An army of seafarers, construction workers, nurses, maids, cleaners, cooks, bar hostesses and others has fanned out across the globe, seeking work unavailable at home. Without the massive $17bn they send home each year in remittances, the Philippine economy would collapse.
Disappointment goes beyond the economic. In an influential and controversial essay written more than 20 years ago for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows lamented what he called the Philippines’ “damaged culture”. He concluded that Filipinos had failed to develop the sense of nationalism that had propelled neighbours to a far more successful – and egalitarian – economic model. “When a country with extreme geographic, tribal and social-class differences, like the Philippines,” he wrote, “has only a weak offsetting sense of national unity, its public life does become a war of every man against every man.”
Only this failure of national purpose, he said, could explain how Filipinos, individually the kindest of people, could tolerate such failings and disparities. Benigno Aquino Jr, the politician whose assassination propelled his widow Cory to power, once said: “Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor ... Here is a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy. Here, too, are people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfilment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite.” Fallows was angered and perplexed that those words, uttered by Aquino some three decades earlier, applied equally to the Philippines of 1987. They remain tellingly accurate even today.
The long election campaign that will conclude on May 10 began in earnest not with the November massacre at Maguindanao, but months before that at a funeral in Manila. Corazon Aquino, whose peaceful overthrow of dictatorship in 1986 briefly kindled a national belief in the possibility of democracy, had succumbed to a long battle with cancer at the age of 76. The “necrological services”, as they are called in this most Catholic of countries, took place on an August night of torrential downpour. The streets were swirling with water. Progress through the traffic-clogged city slowed to a crawl. It took several hours to drive from Makati, the high-rise business district, through the old colonial city to Manila cathedral, to which mourners had been streaming all day and throughout the evening. Everywhere, the streets were festooned in yellow as they had been when Cory’s People Power revolution was sweeping the country. Now she lay in an open casket in the echoing vastness of the domed cathedral.
It was 11pm when I got there. Outside, tens of thousands of ordinary Filipinos waited as sheets of tropical rain poured from the sky. Many had been queuing for hours for the chance to say goodbye to the “plain housewife” who had become a saint of democracy. Inside the cathedral, the line of mourners snaked around the pews to the casket. Even the men employed to control the crowd – the funereal bouncers – were dressed in yellow. Despite the sadness of the occasion, attendees whispered excitedly that it felt like People Power all over again.
As the mourners approached the casket, they slowed almost imperceptibly for a few seconds before moving on. Standing there to greet them, just feet away from his mother’s body, was Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and slacks. “People have been here since noon. They have been standing 10 or 11 hours and not even moving out of the line to eat,” the senator told me. “My mother actualised what we considered the ideal. She took over from a dictatorship and one of her first acts was to call for a commission to craft a constitution that would curtail her powers.” As he talked about the woman whose revolution had ignited the country’s democratic yearnings, I suddenly understood what every other Filipino already knew: “Noynoy” Aquino, Cory’s only son, was running for president.
By the time I returned to Manila a few months later, the presidential race had caught fire. I knew as much when, in a 7-Eleven, I was offered a choice of cups embossed with the face of presidential candidates. Results of the 7-Eleven poll, determined by customer cup-preference, were displayed above the cash register. “Noynoy” Aquino was in the lead. Manuel “Manny” Villar, a billionaire businessman, and Joseph Estrada, a matinee idol who became president only to be impeached for corruption in 2001, were also contenders – at least if the opinions of Manila’s slushie-drinking public were anything to go by.
In fact, there were at least nine presidential candidates to replace Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as 15th president of the Philippines. Arroyo, daughter of a president, had occupied the nation’s top position for nine years, three years longer than the constitution normally allows. She had gained extra time after taking over from Estrada when he was impeached. Arroyo’s presidency has been tainted by persistent allegations of corruption and accusations that she has compromised the independence of institutions such as the Supreme Court. Yet even now her political career is not over. She is expected to win a congressional seat in her home district of Pampanga.
Even to the casual observer, there is a weary familiarity to the names on the ballot sheet, many of them sons and daughters of the families who have dominated Philippine political and economic life for decades, if not centuries. True, the US has its Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys. But this is child’s play compared with the Philippines where political scions hold a seemingly unbreakable hold on power. In Monday’s election, names from the past – in addition to Arroyo, Aquino and Estrada – include Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, son of the late dictator, who is running for the Senate, and none other than Imelda Marcos, now 80, who has dusted off her shoe collection to vie for a congressional seat. And, of course, from the more recent past, several members of the Ampatuan clan will be running.
I was in Manila to see F. Sionil José, the Philippines’ most famous novelist and a trenchant social commentator. I found him several flights up a narrow wooden staircase above the Solidaridad bookshop he founded in 1965 in the city’s old Ermita district. A large, forceful man, with a shiny, bald head, José, now 85, bears a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. He was less than enthused about the election. “Nothing is going to change,” he chuckled grimly. “I am 85. I have seen three generations of Filipino leaders fail. They have never been able to transcend themselves, neither their class nor their ethnicity.
“Did you read The Economist obituary on her?” he asked, referring to Aquino. “It said her greatness ended when she became president. Many people were angry. But for those of us who had eyes wide open, her rule was a disaster,” he said, hissing the final “s”. “She promised land reform. She didn’t do it. She restored the oligarchy. I never forgave her for that.”
José is a polemicist, who has been branded both a Communist and a CIA spy. But his views on the Aquino presidency are not that unusual. In spite of the outpouring of emotion that I had witnessed at her funeral, many Filipinos had been disappointed by what her presidency actually achieved. She was, after all, say her critics, a member of one of the biggest landowning families in the Philippines. In the end, she did little to antagonise those from the privileged class into which she had been born.
Like many, particularly on the left, José identifies the absence of land reform as one of the great failings of Philippine democracy. His grandfather, an Ilocano farmer from northern Luzon, the largest of the Philippines’ three island groups, was tricked out of his land by educated Spanish mestizos, a privileged class who had intermarried with the Spanish colonialists. José chronicles his grandfather’s story in his moving, five-part Rosales saga that is also a history of the nation. During the revolution against the Spanish, the officers were big landlords, but the foot soldiers were peasants,” he said. “I came across so many photographs of the Filipino revolutionary soldiers in the trenches, dead in the trenches,” he said, his eyes watering. “And I looked closely and many of them were barefooted. And their feet were like this,” he said, splaying out his fingers like a five-fingered root. “They were spread – like ‘ginger’ we call it – because they worked in the mud in their bare feet.”
The next day I took the 90-minute flight down from Manila to Maguindanao. From the air, as we came into land, I watched the progress of a wide, coffee-brown river as it coiled its way through thick coconut groves towards the sea. Home to two Islamic sultanates by the time the Spanish got here in the late-16th century, even today the region has a vexed relationship with the rest of the predominantly Christian nation. It has been the scene of a violent separatist conflict for four decades in which an estimated 120,000 have died. Cotabato City, a regional centre about an hour’s drive from the massacre site, had a relaxed feel in spite of the region’s reputation for violence. The Moorish arches of City Hall and the loose headscarves worn by some of the women were the only obvious signs of Islamic influence. My hotel was patrolled by heavily armed security guards, but they didn’t seem too concerned about attack. “Bringing of durian inside the hotel is strictly prohibited,” said a sign at the gate, referring to the particularly pungent fruit. “Kindly deposit it to the guard on duty.”
I had arranged to have lunch with Father Eliseo Mercado, a Catholic priest who had been living in Mindanao for nearly half a century. We met at a Chinese seafood restaurant. A man of ample girth, he wore a large wooden cross. He had studied Islam in Cairo and snorted at what he said were foolhardy attempts to stamp out the “fighting spirit” of local Muslims. He attempted to sum up the political reality of Maguindanao: “It’s feudalism, raw classic feudalism.”
For a religious man, he took a pragmatic, almost cynical, view. “I am friends of the Ampatuans. I have known all the protagonists since they were kids. But I am also friends of the people who were slaughtered,” he said matter-of-factly. He described a symbiotic relationship in which clan leaders like the Ampatuans brought votes and the politicians in Manila sent money. “The biggest feudal lord is Manila,” he said, prizing meat from a crab leg. “The Ampatuans are the creation of Manila, of the Republic. They are the Philippines.”
Colonel Benjamin Hao arranged my escort to the massacre site. He was altogether more equivocal. A mild-mannered, thoughtful man, he had been assigned to Maguindanao in January as part of Manila’s efforts to bolster security in the aftermath of the slaughter. There were now seven battalions in the area, as well as international peacekeepers. Even so, he suggested a military escort because of the possibility of attack from either separatist rebels or rogue private armies.
It was not the first time Hao had been posted to Mindanao. He had been here for seven years in the 1990s. This time he had noticed many changes: there were many more firearms, and more signs of conspicuous wealth. “It used to be a simple town. Now you can see a lot of palaces. You feel like they created a kingdom,” he said of the Ampatuans. Aside from securing law and order, the Philippine Army’s main objective was to ensure that the forthcoming elections went off smoothly, he said. “We encourage people to vote and we provide the atmosphere for them to vote,” he added dutifully. Even he did not pretend the result would be fair. “None of my friends, none of the locals here, think it will be a clean and honest vote.”
Some time after my visit to Maguindanao I spoke to Harry Roque Jr, a lawyer representing 14 victims of the massacre. He was dubious about the chances of securing justice against such powerful interests. He was even more scathing about the electoral process. “They don’t have elections in that part of Mindanao,” he said. “They just have results.” He expected Ombra Sinsuat, a close political ally of the Ampatuans, to win the governorship. Ampatuan Sr himself would be elected vice-governor, he predicted.
Of the broader electoral scene and familiar parade of candidates running for national office, he could only sigh. “The same families have been ruling the Philippines for hundreds of years. There’s no distinction between political and economic power in this country,” he said. “That just seems to be the cycle. And I have no idea how you can break it.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor. His last piece for the FT Weekend Magazine was about Japanese housewives and the yen carry trade.