Philippines President Gloria Arroya has placed three southern provinces under emergency rule after the death toll rose to 46 in a high-profile massacre on the island of Mindanao yesterday. A presidential palace directive said the provinces Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat and the city of Cotabato were under a state of emergency “for the purpose of preventing and suppressing lawless violence in the area”. The death toll almost doubled overnight after police and soldiers found 22 bodies in a hillside mass grave to add to the 24 dead they found a day earlier. The massacre of journalists, supporters and relatives of a candidate for local governor has shocked a region used to turmoil and bloodshed. The wife and sister of local gubernatorial candidate, Esmael Mangudadatu, were among the dead and Mangudadatu has accused a political opponent from a rival Amputuan clan of being behind the slayings.
About 100 armed men intercepted the convoy yesterday as they drove to the Commission on Elections provincial office in Shariff Aguak town, Maguindanao. The convoy was led by Ebrahim Mangudadatu, who was about to file the candidacy for governor of Maguindanao in the provincial capital Shariff Aguak on behalf of his brother of Ishmael. Mangudadatu’s wife rang her husband to say that she and 50 others had been kidnapped by “Ampatuan’s men”. It was the last time the couple spoke. Mrs Mangudadatu and the other victims were brought to a nearby hinterland where they were executed one after another. Many were beheaded.
According to Philstar.com the massacre was the result of a long-running feud between two influential families. The Mangudadatus and Ampatuans were former allies but had a falling out when Esmael declared his intention to run for Maguindanao governor against the governor’s son. They say the attack was led by Datu Unsay Mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr., also known as “Datu Unsay”. His father Data Unsay snr has been the political powerhouse in Maguindanao for many years and Data Unsay jr has designs on the governorship with the aid of powerful friends. Mindanao rebels say that the local police boss was also implicated in the shooting.
About 34 journalists were in the convoy to cover the candidacy. Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres are waiting for confirmation that at least 20 of them were killed in the attack which would make it the largest single massacre of journalists ever. RSF said at least 12 journalists had died in the attack. “Never in the history of journalism have the news media suffered such a heavy loss of life in one day,” they said in statement. “We convey our condolences and sympathy to all journalists in the Philippines, who are in state of shock after this appalling massacre.”
Television station UNTV confirmed four of their employees were killed. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has urged the government to move to “ensure swift justice on the perpetrators, no matter who they are”. Today 100 journalists wearing black shirts and black arm bands with the words, “Stop Killing Journalists,” staged a protest against the killings in Manila. Another 200 denounced the massacre in southern Davao city.
Many are blaming President Arroya for the lawlessness of Philippines southernmost provinces in the run-up to the 2010 election. Maguindanao is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the only part of the country to have its own government. The ARMM is also the poorest of Philippines’ 17 regions by some considerable margin (the next poorest has twice the per capita income of the ARMM). 120,000 people have died in the Muslim insurgency lasting 30 years. Many politicians and elected officials in the region maintain well-equipped private armies tolerated well beyond the reach of Manila. According to Al Jazeera, Governor Ampatuan delivered crucial votes to swing 2004 elections in Arroya’s favour, so people in the province fear he may not be punished even if he is found to be behind the killing.