Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feudal society disguised as a democracy

Dec 12, 2009

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

IT WAS easy to feel her pain when academic Carolina Hernandez was asked to provide a snapshot of the current situation in her native Philippines during a recent Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific conference in Jakarta.

Chatham House rules preclude me from going into detail, but she talked for about 10 minutes about various issues before her voice trailed off in frustration and she ran out of meaningful things to say.

A week later came the massacre in the western Mindanao province of Maguindanao and yet another compelling reason why Ms Hernandez and many of her countrymen find it embarrassing to confront a foreign audience.

This was something that had hit me more than 20 years ago at the start of a four-year assignment in the Philippines, a country still in political turmoil then but revelling in its status as the birthplace of people's power.

Anxious to learn what made it tick, I crossed the country interviewing dozens of provincial power-holders - from Ilocus Norte in northern Luzon to the island of Sulu in the Muslim south.

It was a journey of discovery like no other I had undertaken in Asia. But at the end of it, I was left with one inescapable conclusion: People's power was a myth and nothing short of bloody revolution would change anything for the republic's 66 million people.

The Philippines may be classified as a democracy. But in reality it is a feudal society in which prominent families use violence, the threat of violence and generations of largesse to cement their hold on power.

It has taken 24 years, but even Filipinos now seem to realise that deposing president Ferdinand Marcos wasn't even half the battle won. If deposing the dictator was an example of genuine people's power, how come the people never benefited and the country still keeps spinning its dreary wheels?

With the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines belatedly getting off the fence then, the families who had supported Marcos simply switched horses and lined up behind Mrs Corazon Aquino, herself a member of a powerful family in central Luzon.

Of the post-Marcos presidents, only Mr Fidel Ramos, a retired general who was not a member of the political elite, offered any real hope of breaking the cycle of feudal rule. But the politicians played on public fears that Mr Ramos would turn into a new Marcos and refused to give him a second term.

Many of the larger-than-life provincial bosses I interviewed back then are dead now - a disturbing number of them falling to the bullets of assassins in the pay of other families anxious to take power for themselves.

Although he was not part of an established clan, the scariest of all the people I met was Ilocus Norte vice-governor Rolando Abadilla, Marcos' chief enforcer, who would die in a communist ambush in Quezon City in 1996.

In fact, the only surprising thing about the recent slaughter of 57 women, children and journalists in Maguindanao was the scale of the death toll: It was extraordinary even by Filipino standards.

The rest is simply a replay of what regularly goes on all over a country, during election time or not. There is no point in blaming the armed forces, as many Filipinos like to after a string of failed rebellions.

While there is probably reason to doubt their real motives, the coup-makers of the past two decades all espoused the same frustration as Ms Hernandez did over the future of their country.

As in Maguindanao, the problem lies with the dynastic families who control the congressional seats, the governorships and the mayoralties and ensure that nothing happens that affects their personal interests.

A member of one entrenched clan in the central Philippines told me he could work out, almost down to the street, who had voted for him. Under these circumstances, how can any election in the Philippines possibly change things for the better?

In Mindanao, warlordism presents a whole new dimension, particularly in the Muslim-run autonomous region (Armm) encompassing Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

When Armm was established in August 1989, the government was forced to divide it into a multitude of districts to accommodate the commanders of the Moro National Liberation Front, which had fought a bloody insurrection in the early 1970s.

Complicated by the subsequent emergence of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the feudalistic culture that grew from that has led to an unending cycle of clan warfare in which revenge has become the major motivation.

I saw a glimpse of it during my visit to Sulu, where only weeks before the private armies of two rival political families had fought a prolonged battle with mortars and machine-guns in the heart of Jolo, the ramshackle provincial capital.

More than 20 people died in the fighting and as we stood surveying the 800m-wide swathe of destruction, the Marine brigade commander could only shake his head. 'We could do more,' he told me, 'but who is the enemy?'

Significantly, a battalion commander on Sulu then, Major Renato Miranda later went on to become Marine commandant - and the highest-ranking officer implicated in the abortive 2006 coup against President Gloria Arroyo's government.

And so it goes.

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