MANILA // The massacre of 57 innocent people in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao last month left Filipinos stunned and searching for answers in a country that had become immune to acts of brutality and violence. The scale of the killings and the way in which they were carried out put the focus back on a part of the country where people have learnt to live with violence and death. For the past 40 years Mindanao has been gripped by a bloody Muslim insurgency, Communist rebels fighting along the eastern side of the island, clan wars in Muslim Mindanao, death squads and random acts of extrajudicial murder that more often than not go unchecked by the authorities.
Since the massacre, people are starting to come forward with stories of forced disappearances and executions, of people being butchered with machetes, cut up using chainsaws or buried alive. A local mayor, Andal Ampatuan Jr, son of a provincial warlord and former governor of Maguindanao, has been charged with 25 counts of murder. His father and members of the family have been stripped of their political power and are facing charges of rebellion.
With many of the clan in detention or under arrest and its hold on power broken, stories that could have seemingly come out of Liberia or Sierra Leone are emerging. The chairwoman of the commission on human rights, Leilla de Lima, said the panel had been told of 200 extrajudicial killings in the province. She said she expects more people to come forward. Ms de Lima said a letter contained a story about how one of Ampatuan Sr's wives - he has four - had fallen in love with a younger man. "The young man was ordered killed and shot to death in front of his grandfather," she said.
The letter also contained allegations of chainsaw killings, the burying of a whole family alive and several other "acts of tyranny" carried out by the Ampatuans, she said. "Everybody was aware [of the killings], but they have been tolerated. That is why we want full accountability now. The years of tolerance and neglect are over," she said. Filipinos have gone to Amnesty International as well. "These people have been ruled by fear and violence for over a decade," Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific programme director, said. "No one dared to speak out before through fear of being killed.
"Now you are hearing all sorts of stories about the Ampatuans. They have their own brand of violence and methods of distributing it - chainsaws, machetes and burying people alive with a backhoe." The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings said in a report in 2007 that many killings were carried out by police and military with "impunity". He highlighted death squads in Davao City in eastern Mindanao as an example.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, in a 103-page report this year, You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao, detailed the involvement of police and local officials in targeted killings of alleged drug dealers and petty criminals, street children and others, and described the lack of any effort by the authorities to investigate the killings and bring those responsible to justice.
A human rights activist and Roman Catholic priest, Shay Cullen, said recently: "Most people in northern democracies presume that there is a democratically elected government in the Philippines and that human rights will be respected and upheld. It also presumes that the rule of law prevails most of the time and that the democratically elected government will respect the provision of treaties, conventions and protocols it has signed. In the Philippines that is not so."