Saturday, November 28, 2009

Andal Jr. Known as ‘Hatchet Man’

Philippine Daily Inquirer Agence France-Presse

Posted date: November 27, 2009

MANILA, Philippines — Feared and loathed by his enemies, Andal Ampatuan Jr. is known as the “hatchet man” of a powerful Muslim clan in Mindanao whose family history is written in blood.

A chubby, stone-faced man in his 40s with a penchant for expensive guns, he is the son and namesake of the clan patriarch who has ruled as governor of Maguindanao province for most of this decade.

Ampatuan Jr. denies any role in this week’s massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao who were allegedly targeted to end a political challenge from a rival clan.

But Ampatuan Jr. and his father have long had reputations for using fear and violence to stifle opponents and expand their power, according to the country’s top human rights officials and others who have knowledge about the family.

“The Maguindanao political warlords are really the ones giving crucial or swing votes to administration candidates,” Leila de Lima, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, told Agence France-Presse.

She said the Ampatuan family “act like Gods” in Maguindanao.

De Lima is a former election lawyer who once represented an official who lost to an Ampatuan family member in the 2007 congressional vote allegedly through fraud.

‘I am Loved’

In a previous interview with Reuters news agency, Ampatuan Sr. said the reason he was able to stay long in power in Maguindanao was “because of popular support.”

“Because I am so loved by the constituencies of the municipalities, they ask me to have my sons as representatives,” Ampatuan Sr. said in that interview, referring to his sons who have also been elected into office.

De Lima said the local population was fearful of the Ampatuans, noting that there had been similar, but smaller-scale killings, to Monday’s massacre in Maguindanao in recent years that had been linked to the family.

No One Dares

Reporters in the region also said many people lived in fear of the clan.

“No one here dares to go against the Ampatuans,” one local journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of his own life.

“It is public knowledge that he (Ampatuan Jr.) is the ‘hatchet man’ for the family,” the reporter, who has covered the clan’s rise to power, claimed.

The Ampatuans belong to an old warrior lineage in Maguindanao.

Many Ampatuan clan members fought military repression during the martial law rule of Ferdinand Marcos, according to Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies scholar at the University of the Philippines.

Consolidating Power

Their rise to political prominence, however, came when Ampatuan Sr. was named officer in charge of the province after Marcos fell in 1986, Wadi said.

He eventually was elected governor of the province in 2001, consolidating his grip on power by stockpiling arms and co-opting government militiamen deputized to fight against insurgent groups, Wadi said.

“The Ampatuans are the political warlords in the area. Any attempt at politics by a rival family they consider as threat to their rule is violently cut short,” Wadi said.

“They shared power among themselves, ruling with an iron fist in Maguindanao backed up by their huge armory.”

End in Sight

For administration presidential candidate Gilberto Teodoro Jr., an “ending” may be in sight for the political dominance of the Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao.

“They blew their chance to lead the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao),” said the standard-bearer of the ruling Lakas-Kampi-CMD coalition.

“What kind of an ending is this?” Teodoro asked rhetorically, referring to the massacre which he described as something “beyond hate crime, but an act of lunacy.”

New Blood

The executive committee of Lakas-Kampi-CMD voted unanimously on Wednesday to expel the Ampatuans for “their failure to uphold party ideals and principles in their area of jurisdiction, specifically relating to the peaceful, legal and democratic pursuit and exercise of political power.”

“For the time being politically, nobody will touch them,” Teodoro told reporters in General Santos City.

Teodoro made the remark when asked to assess what the future holds for the Ampatuans in the political arena.

He said expelling the Ampatuans “will not hurt” the ruling party and could even present an “opportunity for Lakas to get new blood.”

Security Concerns

Teodoro flew from Manila to General Santos City supposedly to meet witnesses to the crime and escort them to the capital. But the plan was aborted at the last minute due to security concerns, he said.

Teodoro said that “realistically speaking,” a full-blown trial that could arise from the massacre may not be over before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo steps down next June.

But he said what was important was for the prosecution to immediately start lest “the witnesses lose courage.” Reports from Agence France-Presse and Volt Contreras

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