x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Mindandao massacre lays bare a nation's Achilles' heel

The democratic veneer of the Philippines has been shattered with the massacre on the southern island of Mindanao, which also exposed the ties that bind the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the clan rivalries blamed for the tragedy

The democratic veneer of the Philippines has been shattered. As investigators continue to unearth bodies - mostly women, many journalists - on the southern island of Mindanao, they also expose the ties that bind the administration of the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to the clan rivalries blamed for the massacre. The scale and audacity of the bloodshed, in particular at least 12 journalists killed in the line of work, may not threaten the status quo, but further stains a deeply flawed political system.

Despite avowals to the contrary, there is widespread scepticism that Mrs Arroyo's government will take decisive action against the perpetrators. The blame has fallen on the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled the province of Maguindanao on and off since 2001. A political ally of the Arroyo administration, the family is relied on to muster a loyal voting bloc and proxy military force against separatist militants in the region. Many of the victims were women belonging to the rival Mangudadatu clan, which planned to contest the 2010 provincial elections and also has ties to Manila.

The massacre has been called the country's worst in "recent history". The Philippines has a long and bloody history of violence connected to its powerful political dynasties; at least 120 people were killed in 2007 elections that were considered relatively peaceful. Mrs Arroyo herself traces her lineage to the last rajah of Saludung, present-day Manila. Crushed under the heel of the former strongman Ferdinand Marcos's martial law, these clannish politics have yielded little to democratic institutions - as recent events show.

In Mindanao in particular, the locus of Islamist insurgencies waged by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf, the federal government has fostered civilian militias and local kingpins. In one of the poorest regions of the country, Manila's failure to displace regional powerbrokers with participatory politics will continue to threaten stability. There have been fits and starts towards peace in recent years, in particular as separatist violence has moved towards wary negotiations - in the domestic media, a MILF regional commander immediately denied responsibility for the recent killings and blamed election politics.

Reporters Without Borders has called Monday's events the "largest single massacre of journalists ever". Even for the Philippines, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, there will be enormous political pressure to bring the murderers to justice. Not for nothing is Mrs Arroyo known as the Teflon lady: since 2001 she has survived scandal after scandal, mutiny by members of the armed forces, even a phone recording of her cajoling an election official to guarantee her votes. But as she prepares to step down, the massacre casts a pall on the prospects of her likely successor, Giberto Teodoro.

The perpetrators of this atrocity have miscalculated. The political costs of shielding the culprits may outweigh their regional influence. Assuredly the fallout of this massacre will claim further casualties; whether kingpins will fall is an entirely different question.