Maguindanao massacreOutside the old municipal hall of Datu Piang, in the conflict-torn province of Maguindanao in southern Philippines, Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Arevalo stood on the riverbank and pointed to the marshland and hills. There, he said, was the Muslim rebels’ stronghold. In late October, the monsoon rains had swollen the river, cutting off Datu Piang’s bridge from the road on the other side. A marshy field with a lone hut, banana shrubs, and a derelict mosque lay directly across from where Arevalo stood briefing journalists on developments on the Philippine Army’s battle with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. “This is lawlessness,” he said.

In the late afternoon, the Rio Grande de Mindanao looked calm and powerful. On the far bank where the river forked towards the next province, the heavy trees soaked up the remaining sun. In Datu Piang, old wooden houses on stilts settled quietly with the approaching evening. Occasionally, villagers carrying fruits or drinking water slid past in canoes, glancing at Arevalo and his several armed escorts.

Historically a trading center, Datu Piang had become a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) support base, Arevalo said. The river had become the rebels’ highway, which they used for eluding soldiers before escaping into the trackless labyrinth of the Liguasan Marsh in the direction of the MILF’s 105th Base Command. Wearing a pair of dark shades and cool demeanor, Arevalo sounded disappointed that the current ceasefire was holding the troops back from attacking the rebels.

The son of a soldier who dealt with the same conflict in the 1970s, Arevalo was opting for an all-out war to finish the rebels off. Or, at least, deal serious blows against one of the country’s oldest and strongest rebel groups. The secessionist conflict in Mindanao had begun nearly 40 years ago, spawning a multi-acronym history of bloodbaths and multitudes of internally displaced refugees, truces, successful, and failed agreements.

Generations of rebels and soldiers had participated, including a mishmash of foreign players–from Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda terrorists to Malaysian peace mediators and fighters from such rebel-sympathetic Islamic countries as Libya and Saudi Arabia. Then, U.S. troops came to Mindanao in 2002 at the outset of the “war on terror,” bringing with them the U.S. agenda. On one hand, they conducted joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA); on the other, they supported the negotiations that included MILF’s demand for greater autonomy that could lead to a separate Muslim state. The conflict divided Muslim families, too — those for the military and those for the rebels.

The Datu System

Datu Piang made the national headlines in 2002 when a bomb killed its mayor, Datu Saudi Ampatuan. The datu in the names refers to the local tradition of having clan rulers as chiefs, who have held sway in Muslim-dominated provinces in Mindanao for centuries. The datu system, however, has also perpetuated rido, or clan war.

A killing binge followed the assassination. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the powerful Ampatuan family sought revenge against political opponents. Clan rulers, like Andal Ampatuan, Sr., who allegedly operated by force, intimidation, or electoral manipulation, were indispensable allies to the military in its war against rebels and to Manila-based politicians needing electoral support. This large political clan enjoyed strong ties with previous Philippine presidents, delivering a full 12-slate victory in 2007 for the senatorial candidates of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

But the Ampatuan power weakened in the wake of the family’s alleged masterminding of the November 23, 2009 massacre of 57 people, including at least 30 members of the media. The massacre took place in Ampatuan town in Maguindanao. The slaughter of these journalists underscored the Philippines’ ranking as the world’s most dangerous country for reporters that year.

The nation accused President Arroyo, a staunch ally of the Ampatuans, of allowing the clan to rule over Maguindanao with impunity. The public cried out against political families using troops in insurgency-wracked provinces to reinforce their own private armies. Andal Ampatuan, Sr., the family’s patriarch, and his son, Andal Ampatuan, Jr. were among the nearly 200 people charged in the killing of supporters and family members of Esmael Mangudadatu, Ampatuan Jr.’s gubernatorial rival from another clan. Mangudadatu himself had since been charged with the death of an Ampatuan aide and was reportedly a MILF supporter. Magudadatu won in last May’s gubernatorial race.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Lt. Col. Arevalo and the 29th Infantry Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division were sent to Maguindanao. The transfer was meant to diffuse anger at the troops that had been stationed in the province during the massacre and to convey the message that the military did not favor one family over another. The battalion was headquartered on a low hill in the municipality of Datu Saudi Ampatuan, named after the slain mayor.

Ancestral Domain

Maguindanao, along with four other provinces and a city, was created as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1996 through a plebiscite. This followed an earlier peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) from which breakaway rebel leaders formed the MILF in the early 1980s. Other MNLF remnants went on to form the Abu Sayyaf in conjunction with Filipino fighters that fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Relations with other parts of the Islamic world date back decades. As early as the 1950s, MNLF leaders were educated or trained in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. Throughout the 1990s, the MILF was thought to have established links with the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah as well as exchanged camp trainees with al-Qaeda-linked terror groups in Afghanistan.

In 2000, the Philippine government changed its policy toward the MILF. It stopped recognizing MILF’s territories, launched an all-out war, and overran major training camps, including the sprawling Camp Abu Bakar. Although the war generated strong criticism in Manila over the plight of non-combatant Muslims, it successfully disrupted the MILF’s operations and regional ties with foreign terror groups.

That year, the Abu Sayyaf began sowing terror at sea. It took Filipinos and foreign nationals hostages, reportedly earning millions in ransoms paid by foreign governments. The rebels famously outwitted the chasing troops, moving their captives from one island to the next in their faster speedboats. They kidnapped three Americans in 2001, beheading one of them. Another died in captivity in 2002, during a rescue raid carried out by the Philippine military with the U.S. military’s assistance. While the MILF publicly condemned the Abu Sayyaf’s terrorist acts, both groups reportedly harbored each other’s forces when pursued by government troops.

The MILF, which claimed some 12,000 armed members, had demanded a separate Muslim state — and would have gotten its wish had the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain been implemented. The accord would have expanded ARMM’s territory to include large parts of mainland Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan islands, replicating the ancestral homeland of the Moros before the Spanish rule in the 16th century. But just before the scheduled signing in 2008, the Philippine Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order and later declared the accord unconstitutional.

Underlying the reversal was the fear that this greater autonomous region would become a separate Islamic state. In the predominantly Christian Philippines, it was easy to drum up political opposition and play on public sentiments of potential violence. In Manila, lawmakers raised the alarm that implementation would lead to the eventual breakup of the country. In Mindanao, Christian landowners protested the loss of huge swathes of their properties under the accord. Ordinary Muslims in Mindanao, meanwhile, had little choice of where to put their allegiance: the warring clan leaders, unrelenting rebel fighters who defied issues of legalities, or government troops who could not put an end to the insurgency.

Natural resources in Mindanao were also at stake. Liguasan Marsh reportedly sits on natural gas reserves. If tapped, it could transform life in Maguindanao, now one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. Mineral-rich Palawan, one of the provinces the MILF had wanted to annex, lies just above Mindanao island. Palawan is also close to the Spratlys, a group of islands in the South China Sea widely believed to have large oil deposits. The Philippines, along with five other countries, including China, have staked conflicting ownership claims over the Spratly islands.

Manila, therefore, might have found itself negotiating with a new and richer Islamic authority if the peace process with the Muslim rebels had led to the country’s surrender of ownership of its southern territory.

After the agreement was canceled, the MILF retaliated. It burned down villages, causing over 700,000 people to flee. Commander Ameril Umbra Kato of the 105th Base Command led some of the attacks.

The Weakest Link

Just before dusk, a man pushing a carabao, or water buffalo, could be seen working the flooded field near the hut and mosque by the Rio Grande, across the riverside municipal hall of Datu Piang. During the dry season, Lieutenant Colonel Arevalo explained, you could see the road at foot of the bridge, as low tide made the village much easier to reach.

“You see how kind the government is? We know where they are, and yet we cannot go after them because of the ceasefire,” Arevalo said, adjusting his shades in the gathering darkness. Clearly, the soldier was presenting the military as the good guys. But the Muslims in Mindanao had legitimate grievances about poverty, illiteracy, and human rights abuses — exacerbated by centuries of resisting religious and political subjugation and by a decades-long war for statehood.

The Philippine military had been accused of engaging the rebels to get badly needed materiel and financial aid, especially from the United States. But the top brass’s history of wading into politics — by twice ousting presidents then colluding with corrupt politicians and wealthy clan leaders such as the Ampatuans — had won and lost the military public support.

Charges of corruption led the outcries — at times coming from the soldiers themselves in the form of coup attempts. A few years ago at the height of extrajudicial killings of suspected communist rebels belonging to the New People’s Army and their sympathizers, Filipinos in the Philippines and in the United States took to the streets to call on the U.S. government to re-evaluate its assistance to the Philippine military. In the minds of the public in such strife-torn places like Maguindanao, the foot soldiers’ service of keeping the country safe was often overshadowed by the politicians’ shimmering notoriety.

Worse still, there’s a shortage of soldiers in the armed forces, with only 113,500 active personnel in a country of 90 million people and porous borders. In order to fight in rebel-infiltrated jungles and farmlands, pirate-plagued seas, and secession-torn Muslim areas, the military formed alliances with dynastic politicians owning private armies. But the human rights violations committed by elements of either or both had been considered one and the same.

For a country that once had General Douglas MacArthur as its first commanding officer, the Philippines now has one of the weakest militaries in Southeast Asia. Military cooperation with the United States such as training and intelligence-gathering was welcomed as an international geopolitical reality. But the two governments had differing views on whether or not U.S. troops could engage in combat in the insurgency areas. Filipino politicians complained that the United States was getting more out of the VFA deal than the Filipinos or mused publicly about turning to China to counterbalance the United States.

The military knew they needed the United States and the promised material assistance. “We are fighting to keep the Americans here,” Arevalo said.

Whither the Rebels?

After the U.S. military bases in the Philippines were shut down in 1992, the United States all but turned its back on its former colony — only to be invited back in 1995, following a dispute between the Philippines and China over the Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. In 1999, the Senate ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement, and the alliance started conducting joint activities again, especially in the fight against Abu Sayyaf. U.S. troops had also set up their own headquarters within some Philippine army camps in Mindanao, including in Maguindanao.

During President George W. Bush’s term, the U.S. ambassador in Manila met with the MILF leadership and supported peace talks. It even reached a point where an MILF spokesperson said they were open to having U.S. bases in its future state.

The other two rebel groups — Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army (NPA) — landed on the U.S. list of terror organizations. U.S. troops helped neutralized the Abu Sayyaf through humanitarian and engineering works in otherwise poor, hostile areas like the Sulu islands. Meanwhile, the Philippine army’s fight against the NPA turned ugly. As President Arroyo’s target date of ending the insurgency loomed, extrajudicial killings of leftist activists, militant students, and labor union leaders took place throughout the country. Arroyo’s involvement in various corruption scandals blurred the military gains, and soldiers’ abuses came under considerable criticism.

Reality on the Ground

The military’s image had been in need of a makeover. But the response a year after the massacre had been calculated because the military did not want to abandon the civilian allies that took its side in its bitter, bloody battle against the rebels.

That afternoon, before coming to Datu Piang, Lieutenant Colonel Arevalo had arrived at a meeting in a convoy of Humvees, military trucks, SUV escorts, a rented car that carried two journalists, and Akmad Ampatuan, who was running for barangay (village) captain in the October elections. It was a “peace covenant” that the local government and military had designed to bring rival candidates together and appeal for calm. The meeting was held at a road-side hall where it was not easy to separate the soldiers from the politicians’ armed bodyguards, the villagers from the militia, and the rebels in civilian clothing from the locals mingling in the crowd.

From a loudspeaker came the Philippine national anthem and a Muslim prayer. The villagers and candidates laughed and cajoled. Food was served. Local officials from the dubious elections committee seemed overall satisfied. Speeches were made. An older soldier spoke of his battles in Mindanao and the friendships he had forged with Muslims during his 27 years in the army.

Colonel Mayoralgo Dela Cruz appealed to the people’s “conscience” to stop feeding the insurgency with young fighters and think about the generations of children that had lost opportunities for a better life and education. During the morning, he had attended a peace-signing ceremony with the Malaysian representative to the International Monitoring Committee overseeing the truce between the military and the MILF.

Dela Cruz, like the battalion under Arevalo, was transferred to Maguindanao to put some distance between the military and the ongoing rido among Muslim families. He also was tasked with maximizing the use of the military’s armored vehicles in his role as the acting commander of the 1st Mechanized Infantry. Approximately 1,000 troops and 30-40 tanks, he said, were concentrating on the province’s 11 municipalities, where about 4,000 MILF rebels were known to operate. In contrast, Arevalo was more direct: “We’re exercising restraint because there is a ceasefire. Otherwise, we can attack them because we know where they are,” he declared, knowing the crowd could relay his message to their friends and families in the MILF.

Breaking the Cycle

Some politicians propose ending the conflict in Mindanao by changing the Philippine constitution to facilitate economic development. One proposal was the creation of a federal system of government that would divide the country into states independent from Manila, without necessarily tearing the country apart. President Benigno Aquino Jr., however, had voiced reservations to changing the 1987 constitution created during the term of his mother, President Corazon C. Aquino.

From the peace covenant, Arevalo’s convoy went to Datu Piang, where he met with a politician whose family had feuded with the MILF. It was already dark, and the initial plan to end the interviews and head back to the hotel in Cotabato City in daylight was scrapped. The long road out of Datu Piang was uninhabited and unlit in stretches, with occasional flickers of light emanating from huts on the edges of fields. Everywhere else, the night and shadows of hills and mountains were broken only by the headlights of the army’s convoy as it made its way back to the AFP headquarters in Datu Saudi Ampatuan.

It had been a long day of hastily arranged interviews and meetings. Only the voice of Arevalo, seated in the back of the car, could now be heard as he continued his battle stories. Then came an explosion in front of the journalists’ car, on the side of the road near the hills of Barangay Lower Salbu.

“Flat tire?” Lt. Col. Arevalo asked the driver, without a trace of panic in his voice.

“No, sir. I think it’s a bomb,” replied the driver, who grew up in Mindanao and worked at a hotel in Cotabato City. “Sir. Do we advance, sir?” the driver asked, as he maneuvered through the smoke and debris, which turned out to be shrapnel and dust.

Later, the army would report that the convoy had been ambushed. In addition to the two roadside bombs, there was an exchange of fire, apparently with the MILF. The soldier driving the Humvee sustained a slight wound on his face. Two barangay candidates riding in a private van that tailed the convoy were killed in the ensuing gunfight.

That night the whole headquarters of 29IB stirred, armored cars moved, and soldiers were sent out after the rebels. American soldiers, fully armed and ready for battle, came down from their housing on top of the hill. After the dust had settled, two benign-looking U.S. soldiers introduced themselves as part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. The Filipino soldiers from the convoy who engaged in the firefight could not identify the ambushers. Then, Arevalo said, “If we had night vision goggles, the soldiers would have seen the enemies better.”

It was a long night at the headquarters as the army tried to figure out what happened.

Carmela Cruz is a freelance journalist based in Manila and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.