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Warlords of the republic

By Patricio N. Abinales
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:53:00 12/12/2009

Filed Under: Maguindanao Massacre
THE value of warlords arose from their coercive capacities that backed up national leaders,
assisted the military in the destruction of rebels, reformists and other threats to those in power,
and brought in supplementary largesse when patrons and allies, having looted state coffers dry,
needed extra funds to retain their power.
Warlords emerged out of a distinct period in Philippine history: the war years.
First generation
First generation warlords acquired their notoriety with the guns and followers they amassed
during World War II to establish local fiefdoms.
The Dimaporos of Lanao del Sur, the Marcoses of Ilocos Sur, the Sinsuats and Matalams of
Cotabato, the Montanos of Cavite and the Duranos of Danao had a common beginning when the
United Statesconcerned with fighting the war elsewheregave its blessings to anyone ready
to set up an anti-Japanese guerilla force.
Having shown loyalty during the Japanese occupation, they would be exempt from the arms-
confiscation program of the returning Americans. And once the national parties were
(re)established, national politicians found them handy allies who could bring in votes from their
Illicit sector
Guns and goons, however, were not enough. Many an ex-guerrilla aspiring to become a politico
failed through lack of largesse to bribe officials, buy votes, support a patronage network and
keep private armies fed. Deprived by older caciques of access to landed estates and the spoils of the
national state, the more enterprising found sustenance in the illicit sector.
Hence the stories and rumors of the Duranos connection with the paltik [homemade-gun]
industry, the Dimaporos involvement in illegal logging, the Marcoses control of granting
citizenship to illegal Chinese immigrants and the Montanos smuggling of cigarettes in Cavite.
These were the folks who did well-enough financially to be able to broaden their political
ambitions. The best and most notorious eventually became president, ruling the country for two
Ferdinand Marcos built his presidency and dictatorship on a military he turned into his own
private army, reinforced by a coalition of warlordsmany from his cohortwho helped the
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) preserve peace and order in their respective areas.
Marcos was not simply their patron; he was a model for their future. For Marcos preserved his
essential warlordism while embellishing it with the more honorable perks of the presidency.
Going legit
He was, if you will, the Filipino realization of Godfather Michael Corleones dream of going
legit without sacrificing the benefits accruing from the familys dark practices.
The relative peace created by martial law and the scaling down of the warlords
responsibilities (no more elections and their accompanying intimidation) was the occasion to
acquire the legitimacy and respectability that Marcos appeared to possess. Hence, the
grandchildren of the bosses found themselves being trained in good manners and right conduct,
sent to good schools to start careers totally unrelated to their fathers (and grandfathers) line of
The transition was not always smooth and respectability would take at least two generations to
attain. Eventually, there was grandson Ace of Lolo Ramon Durano and grandson Khalid of Datu
Ali Dimaporo. Some never made the grade, but listening to Chavit Singsons children articulate a
defense of their father after he beat up their mother, one senses that becoming properly bourgeois
is just a few years away.
New kids in the hood
Yet as one warlord clan pursued respectability, new warlords emerged to renew the phenomenon.
Like their predecessors, they had their genesis in a state of war, but one with a more limited
geographic scopeMuslim Mindanao.
The separatist rebellion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was the first
conventional war the republic fought, and it profoundly altered and eventually undermined the
grand plans of the Marcos dictatorship. The AFP took the lead in containing the rebellion,
receiving substantial support from Muslim warlords who shared the dictatorships opprobrium of
the MNLF because of the movements antitraditional Muslim elite platform.
Openly against MNLF
Even after the rebellion died down, however, the build-up of warlord firepower continued and
now the mantle began to shift away from the Matalams, Dimaporos and Sinsuats to the likes of
the Ampatuans and their rivals, the Mangudadatus.
Like the older warlord clans, Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. was openly against the MNLF. He used
to be friends with the secessionist group. To what extent he and his clan fought the MNLF
remains an area that needs further investigation by scholars and journalists.
But a hint of this involvement is discernible in the clans open hatred for the MNLFs successor,
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). (If true, this would point to a necessary revision in
the way the separatist war is described by historians, public intellectuals and pundits. The
popular and politically correct explanation is that Christian militias alone fought alongside the
Removed from office
When Marcos fell and Cory Aquino assumed the presidency in 1986, she ordered the warlords
removed from their local offices but never dispossessed them of their guns and private armies.
Wracked by internal bickering, constantly threatened by coups, and naively believing it only
needed to change some structures and rituals and democracy will pop out of the genies bottle,
the Aquino administration was too engrossed with its own survival to prioritize eliminating the
blight of warlordism.
The warlords soon rebounded. Ampatuan was in fact named officer in charge of Maganoy town
by Aquino. His rival, Datu Surab Abutazil, was gunned down in 1987, a year after the Edsa
revolution, but it elicited little concern from Manila. After all, what was Maganoy but a small,
sleepy town in one of the poorest and least accessible provinces of the southern frontier?
Power of ARMM
These placesMaganoy, Maguindanao, Moro Mindanaowere the essence of unimportant
But not for long. Republic Act No. 7160 (Local Government Code of 1991) and the peace
agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government significantly changed the power
calculus within the Muslim provinces as well as their relationship with Manila.
Suddenly, instead of a myriad minor provinces whose voting contributions were negligible
because of their thin populations, there now stood a single regional autonomous body with a
hefty voting constituency.
Instead of localities operating autonomously and often having multiple ties with different
national patrons, here was the possibility of unifying the Muslim provinces under the firm hold
of the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with ample funds and,
of course, the firepower to back him up.
(ARMMs budget for 2008 was P10 billion, but it cannot be examined by commissioners of audit
fearful of being killed.)
Decisive in election
The ARMM thus morphed from the poorest and arguably least consequential local
organizationthe MILF was more seriously regarded in Manilato a potential bloc that could
prove decisive in any critical election.
The new value of the ARMM did not become immediately obvious because under Aquino, Fidel
Ramos and Joseph Estrada, the regional body was still in the hands of ex-MNLF leaders who
were appointed as reward for signing the peace agreement.
Latecomers in the patronage game and novices in the art of governance and the spoils system,
the MNLF governors used the regional bodys resources to jump-start their own political careers
and set up their own bailiwicks.
But it was already clear to the warlords of provinces in the
ARMM what a special autonomous region in a war zone could do for them and their national
patrons. And they would find their soul mate in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Gloria and Andal Sr.

Ms Arroyo is probably the first president to fully appreciate the value of local politics for
national survival. Unlike her predecessors, she has kept the internal revenue allocation tap open
to provincial and city officials and ensured their support during her 10 years in office.
Aware that Manila will always vote for the opposition, she has sought to mitigate the capitals
electoral impact by bringing in votes from the provinces. The bosses, who were the most
effective in helping her, were also those who ruled like petty despots over their bailiwicks.
Indeed, it was from small, impoverished towns like Maganoy (now Shariff Aguak) that Ms
Arroyo garnered the needed votes in 2004. This differed from when Lanaos dead rose from their
graves to vote 100 percent for Marcos, something which had no critical impact on the national
The 2004 contributions of the Mindanao warlords were the beginning of what appears to be a
long-term strategy of consolidating the provinces against the cities.
The plan seemed to revolve around expanding the Ampatuans grip over the entire region so that
in the battles ahead, elections included, Ms Arroyo could rely on the entire region and not just
one province. (Implausible? Note that current ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan gave himself the
following alibi for the Nov. 23 massacre in Maguindanao: Hea Maguindanaowas in
Malacaang discussing with the President who would be Lakas-Kampis best candidate among
the Tausogs of Sulu!)
For their services the Ampatuans were well-rewarded: the ARMM governorship with its billions
in funds, the privilege of naming relatives and allies to prized government posts, enough arms to
supply an army battalion, and, most of all, direct access to Malacaang. The military and police
would also keep their hands off whatever racket the clan was involved in.
Simply too much
Then the massacre happened. The Ampatuans seem to have truly believed that since Ms Arroyo
was behind them, they could push their despotism to a higher, bloodier level, literally destroying
anyone who stood in their way.
They were wrong. For no matter how power-hungry she is, the President cannot simply wish 57
dead bodies away the way she dismissed criticisms of her 1-million vote margin in 2004. This
was simply too much.
Ampatuans must go
The Ampatuans will have to go, for unlike older, respectability-seeking clans, they are too dead
set on brutality and comfortable in their malevolence.
They remind one of Virgil The Turk Sollozo, the heroin dealer in The Godfather who planned
the assassination of Vito Corleone. Sollozo saw no value in adopting the gentlemanly practices
of the Mafia Dons, just as the Ampatuans refuse to transcend their disreputable condition and
school their young like an Ace or a Khalid.
Much like Sollozo, they will have to be taken down by the very government that nurtured them.
This will be necessary in order to pretend to restore normalcy in Maguindanao and save
whatever is left of Malacaangs credibility.
Pipe dream
Alas, the end of the Ampatuans does not mean the end of warlordism. Given the high cost of
running campaigns and the growing competition to access the billions coming out of the illegal
sectors of the economy to fund them, the further criminalization of the electoral process would
be difficult to reverse. And when criminals are involved, guns must be within easy reach.
As I said at the outset, warlordism has always been a major ingredient of our republics politics.
It would take a major overhaul of our system to eliminate warlords from our political life.
This, regrettably, remains a pipe dream.
(Patricio N. Abinales is a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University
in Japan. His latest book, Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative: 1890-
2006, will be published by Ateneo de Manila University Press.)