The Maguindanao Massacre: impunity rears its ugly head by Lennart Niemela, M.A., Asian studies, Lund University

8. Feb 2010

The Maguindanao province, located on Mindanao island in Southern Philippines, made headlines in international media on November 23, 2009, when a convoy on the way to an election office was held en route by armed men and 57 people were brutally killed. The governor of the province, Andal Ampatuan, is pointed out as the prime suspect for the killings.

If not the brutality of the act caught the eye of the public, then certainly the sheer number of journalists and media workers killed did. According to the report on journalists and media staff killed in 2009 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ 2010), the 32 media workers killed in the massacre constituted the single worst act of political violence directed at media since IFJ started publishing reports on media killings 20 years ago, which makes the Philippines the most dangerous country for journalists outside Iraq.

The massacre calls for a further contextualizing of the political economy of violence in the Philippines than have been made in news media in general. What conditions made the massacre possible?

According to a speech by Philippine Chairman on the Human Rights Commission Leila M. De Lima (2010), the corruption underlying the massacre is merely the tip of an iceberg where the local situation is rooted in corruption on a national level.

De Lima calls for “[a] change in operational hierarchy […], particularly where the local chief executive retains operational control over law enforcers.” What De Lima addresses is a structure that has enabled ruling clans to build private armies.

Considering the high instance of extrajudicial killings, which have increased during Arroyo’s administration (HRW 2009) and have implicated both the military and the Philippine National Police (PNP), very few are convicted. According to De Lima (2010), human rights violations are most often related to anti-insurgency campaigns. The threat of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) insurgencies have been exploited for patron-client relationships between the government and provincial ruling clans. In 2006 President Arroyo declared an “all-out war” against the NPA and to extend the forces against insurgents, Executive Order 546 was passed which enabled local officials and the PNP to deputize and arm local militias as Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVO) (Lingao 2009). Local police chiefs, in turn, can be chosen by local officials, creating a direct chain of command between clan and CVOs. In practice, local warlords thus maintain power by offering the central government counter-insurgency in trade for votes and their private armies are built using the coffers of the state.

Key indicators for education have fallen since the beginning of the Arroyo administration in 2001, but the situation in Maguindanao is further worsened by armed conflicts (Jimeno 2008a). Poverty in the province is the third worst in the country and has increased dramatically during Ampatuan’s rule. The conditions are such that CVOs in Maguindanao have also recruited amongst minors (Jimeno 2008b).

The Maguindanao Massacre is a frightening indicator of just how far impunity has developed in the Philippines and has already called out many organizations and people into the streets in demonstrations. The reality of provincial lawlessness will reverberate until the upcoming May 10 elections and have opened up an opportunity for actors of change to take front stage, but it also stresses the need for free and fair elections to develop properly for change to be possible.




De Lima, L.M., 2010. An overview of the Philippine human rights situation – what should be a meaningful human rights agenda for the next administration? In Commission on Human Rights, On the occasion of the KAPIHAN on human rights: towards a meaningful human rights agenda. Makati City, Philippines 12 January 2010. Commission on Human Rights: Manila.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2009. Philippines: massacre shows Arroyo’s failure to address impunity. [Online] [Accessed 8 February 2010]

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 2010. End of a deadly decade: journalists and media staff killed in 2009. [Online] Belgium: International Federation of Journalists. Available at: [Accessed 8 February 2010]

Jimeno, J.F., 2008a. Maguindanao, RP fall behind key indicators for education. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 8 February 2010]

Jimeno, J.F., 2008b. Young guns, young terror. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 8 February 2010]

Lingao, E., 2009. Putting Maguindanao in context. [Online] [Accessed 8 February 2010]