Collusion and collision in Muslim Mindanao

It has been ten years since the brutal massacre of 58 people in Ampatuan, Maguindanao in the Philippines on 23 November 2009. This is the second of a three-article series on the violent incident written at the time. We remember and reflect on the lessons from the tragedy that shook the nation as we re-release the analyses that still hold true today. Read part one here.


The eruption of violence and the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao expose the dynamics of collaboration and conflict between allies who advance their interests in conditions of war. Without this backdrop, the recent declaration of martial law will be viewed as baseless, unnecessary, and rife with hidden agendas.

Why should government declare martial law in an area which had been under de-facto military rule over the past two weeks? Martial law in Maguindanao seems to constitute an overkill given the arsenal of coercive instruments that the central state commands. Yet the imposition actually makes sense when seen through the prism of political economy—or the shifting power relations between Malacañang and Maguindanao, and between Ampatuan and the other warlord clans of Mindanao.

In short, martial law possesses political traction even if the legal basis does not exist. Prior to the massacre, the Ampatuan clan was the 'stationary bandit' in Maguindanao and the overlord of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Witness the line of governors from the ARMM that gave obeisance to Andal Sr. in jail and pledged their unwavering support to his regime. It demonstrates the elite bargain purchased and coerced by the Ampatuan clan among the Moro elite, which transformed the regional authority into a powerful force unmatched by previous regional administrations.

When rulers and warlords unite

For the first time in the ARMM’s history, powerful governors marched in step with the overlord, condoning years of violence and corruption in exchange for a share in the licit and illicit revenues to be gained from a region that is part of the Philippine state only in name and location. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition bound itself to the dominant clan through an arrangement that brought huge revenues and state-of-the-art weaponry to the latter in exchange for the votes and violence that secured the authority of the ruling coalition.

Collaboration facilitated the 2004 electoral fraud and a subsequent cover-up. Collaboration enabled the state to harness the clan’s armed strength to ensure compliance among competitors and to protect the instigators. Collaboration provided the muscle that would stem any intervention or meddling by rebel forces and other armed groups.

But elite bargains are by nature extremely fragile and fraught with complications. They are also confusing, especially when the state engages in the same illicit activities which it should be suppressing. Hence, when we see guns and ammunition stamped with DND and AFP logos in the possession of ruthless paramilitaries, we are shocked by the collusion between rulers and warlords who partake from the same bounty gained from the underground trade in illegal weapons.

Rivals for resources

The key is to see the agents of both sides in the political divide, i.e., rulers and warlords, as rival groups vying for the same scarce economic and political resources, alternately colluding and colliding with each other, faced with the same incentive to gain more at the expense of the other.

The same may be said about the inter-clan warfare that erupted in Central Mindanao, where demographic pressures were partly to blame according to conflict analyst Ed Quitoriano. In his view, the violence was a direct result of the diminishing resources available in terms of territory and government positions. These could no longer accommodate the children and descendants of the patriarchs who wanted to carve out their own space within the region.

The arrangement approximates what the conflict scholar David Keen calls a "sell game" (rigged game), where rivals collude based on the shared aim to “make money" and to “stay alive" or collide when one party undermines the other. The alliance can endure over long periods of time if each side recognizes the possibilities and limits of the game. However, the game eventually ends when one, or both players over-reach.

This was the case in 2001, when President Joseph Estrada’s "over-reach" led to Chavit Singson’s withdrawal from a bargain that came dangerously close to his own annihilation. The Maguindanao massacre reflects the same "over-reach" that now dooms the partnership with Ampatuan.

In such a scenario, conflict becomes the fruit of collaboration. The side effect of a ruptured alliance is that a rival who knows the real score may turn from concealing towards revealing this deadly arrangement. Worse, the rival may engage in armed confrontation that can threaten the security of the entire ruling coalition. This is when a massacre becomes useful, and militarization becomes inevitable.

The unintended consequence of the Maguindanao massacre was to provide the rationale for militarization. Militarization in turn puts the squeeze on a rival who is punished and coerced to accept the new set of rules, i.e., a new elite bargain. In this context martial law is simply the next logical step in a politico-military rescue effort aimed at engineering a smooth transition from one clan to another, away from the prying eyes of media, the international community, and the public.

Redistribution of power

The ultimate beneficiaries are the national political elites, including some Moro elites hungry for the same privilege and power which Ampatuan possessed. This new alliance appears dead-set on redressing the power imbalance built and nurtured through years of protection, corruption, and the use of local elites for black ops.

Martial law cripples the Ampatuan clan’s chances of maintaining the same politico-military dominance and may be hard put maintaining a significant fraction of its influence and firepower. This does not mean that the Ampatuan clan should be written off, only that the conditions for a rebound will not emerge until some sort of palatable justice is served, or a new arrangement is forged with the state, probably under the next administration.

Nevertheless, the ruling coalition is now in a position to redistribute power to other contenders and to restore the political momentum in their hands. DILG Secretary Ronaldo Puno’s comments on the likely transition are illustrative. He argues that vice-governors will replace governors, vice-mayors will replace mayors, so on and so forth. Following the constitutional provision that prohibits military governance over civilian authority, the Ampatuan clan will be coerced into ceding power to the next link in the civilian chain of command. In the interim, these new political authorities may share the same surname and are likely to be clones of the Ampatuans.

Eventually, a new warlord clan will emerge to trump the rest. The situation teaches us to analyse the conflict in Muslim Mindanao by looking at violence and conflict as a system where the economic and political interests of warlords and rulers alternately collude and collide. That knowledge will in turn highlight the fatal flaw that produced the bloodshed on November 23, 2009.

In a region where political animosities were often resolved by gerrymandering, the political geography to accommodate diverse and powerful claimants or by threatening overwhelming force, the government relied instead on a strategy which it is slowly getting used to. Apprised of the looming violence between the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clan, the President and her operators tried vainly to convince the latter to drop their electoral challenge. In short, to back off. As we all know, that strategy failed with tragic consequences.

Read part 1