The ruthless political entrepreneurs of 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 first 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.

The Maguindanao massacre predicts the eruption of wider violence and conflict as the nation heads towards the 2010 elections. Yet to dismiss this incident as ‘election-related’ is to miss the fundamental political and economic implications of this foul deed. This massacre is primarily rooted in a shift in the politico-economic sources of violence and conflict in Muslim Mindanao. It signifies the emergence of new-type warlords whose powers depend upon their control of a vast illegal economy and an ever-growing slice of internal revenue allotments. Both factors induce a violent addiction to political office.

In Muslim Mindanao, political authority is a terrain that needs to be seized to ensure control over billions in IRA remittances from the central state. Political office also enables control or the power to extort money from those engaged in the lucrative business of illegal drugs, gambling, gun-running, and smuggling, among others. Here the piracy of CDs and DVDs, and the smuggling of pearls and other gemstones from China and Thailand are treated as small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs).

Indeed, political legitimacy in Muslim Mindanao has very little to do with protecting people’s rights or providing basic services. People hardly expect government to function, especially when they don’t pay taxes. Instead, legitimacy is all about providing protection to your fellow clan members by trumping the firepower of your competitors, leaving people alone, and forgetting about taxes.

The sad thing about the recent massacre is that it could have easily been avoided. Everyone in Central Mindanao knew about the looming violence between the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu clans as early as January 2009, when the latter’s patriarch Pax Mangudadatu made known his clan’s intention to challenge Andal Ampatuan’s political hold on Maguindanao.

Yet neither Malacanang nor the COMELEC, PNP, and the AFP made any attempt to monitor their activities, disarm their private security, demobilize their loyalists within the police and military, and ring-fence their camps.


The answer lies in the newfound role of Muslim Mindanao to national political elites. It is the source of millions of votes that can be stolen to overturn the results of national political contests. This was the case in the presidential elections of 2004 and the senatorial race in 2007. It will serve the same purpose in 2010. Whose purpose is served by arresting Ampatuan in an election year? Certainly not those of the ruling coalition.

And to those pressing for a limited martial law in Maguindanao, beware what you wish for.

In a region where the rebellion-related conflict between the GRP-MILF received all the national and international community’s attention and aid, international NGOs such as International Alert and the Asia Foundation have often decried the ignorance and indifference of the government and donor agencies to community-based inter and intra-clan violence. This indifference will lead to more death and destruction as the election approaches – when a convergence between rebellion-related and inter and intra clan conflict occurs as military forces and armed rebels take sides between warring clans and factions.

In 2008 the conflict economist and scholar Stathis Kalyvas called attention to the birth of “ruthless political entrepreneurs” who shape and are shaped by the dynamics between states, clans, and conflict. The viciousness of the Maguindanao attack shows how this phenomenon resonates here. It demonstrates the weak and narrow reach of the central Philippine state in Muslim Mindanao, and how the continued reliance on local strong men will not end the cycle of violence.