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Collusion and collision in Muslim Mindanao *

Francisco Lara Jr.

Francisco Lara Jr. is a Research Associate at the Crisis States Research


Center, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics

The eruption of violence and the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao


exposes 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 perceived 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?

To follow this reasoning is to insist that martial law in Maguindanao


constitutes 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 Malacanang 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 ARMM. Witness the line of governors
from the ARMM that showed obeisance to Andal Sr. 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 administrations.

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 electoral fraud and a
subsequent cover-up. Collaboration enabled the state to harness the clan’s
armed threat 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. So 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.

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 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 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


imminent.

The unintended consequence of the Maguindanao massacre was to provide


the rationale and recourse to 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.

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 Renato 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 analyze 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 to fix the problem by convincing
the latter to back-off.

As we all know, that strategy failed with tragic consequences.