Notes from the Field

Philippine Elections and Rido: Before Maguindanao, Murder in Sulu

May 5, 2010

On Nov. 23, 2009, the incident now widely known as the “Maguindanao Massacre,” left 57 unarmed civilians dead. The enormous media attention to this gruesome incident and the resulting local and international public outrage ensured swift action from authorities to arrest and put to trial the suspects in the killing. Amid fears of a looming rido (clan feud) between two political clans, the victimized Mangudadatu family stated categorically, in public, that they would not retaliate against the alleged perpetrators, the Ampatuans.

While the details of the grisly murder unfolded to an outraged public, a similar incident had taken place nearly a month before, away from media’s gaze (and with fewer casualties), in southwestern Philippines on Pata Island, Sulu province. On Oct. 30, 2009, a man named Majid Adjail, his wife and his sister-in-law, left Barangay Daungdong and travelled to Poblacion Saimbangon to register as voters for the May 2010 election. The registration was allegedly conducted near the residence of the ruling political family, surrounded by armed supporters, instead of the designated registration center. Upon approaching the politician’s residence, two armed guards questioned Adjail, his wife, and sister-in-law. According to an affidavit, after establishing Adjail’s identity, the rival politician who was five meters away, allegedly ordered him killed, possibly believing that Adjail supported an opponent because of Adjail’s brother’s connections to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) regional governor. Majid Adjail was tied, beaten, and shot dead. Only by pleading for their lives were the two women allowed to leave unharmed and take their dead relative back home. A formal complaint about the incident was filed at the Zamboanga City Prosecutors Office and at the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). A counter-affidavit was already filed by the accused to answer the charges. As in many of these cases, the wheels of justice often grind slowly in the Philippines.

On April 20, 2010, six months after the Adjail shooting, a series of skirmishes occurred on Pata Island, widely seen as retaliation by some members of the aggrieved family who had allied themselves with other families that also have a longstanding feud with the incumbent political clan. The fighting, spreading over four barangays (villages), resulted in two deaths, four wounded, and several houses burned. In one village, mortar fire displaced thousands, while hundreds had to evacuate to avoid retaliatory attacks. As of this writing, members of the military’s Task Force Comet and some peacekeeping groups are in Pata to pacify the warring groups. This series of events that have transpired in Pata are only the tip of the iceberg.

Pata Island has had a long, sad history of war, stretching back to 1981 when it became a “no man’s land” because of the clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Depending upon who you ask, there are different versions of what happened then, but suffice to say, one of those killed in this incident was a commander, Unad Masilam, father of MNLF General, Commander Rendiyong Masilam, who is now currently one of the contending political families in Pata.

Fast-forward to the May 1998 national and local elections. If one were to describe the centers of power in Pata, the island can be divided into two – the Poblacion (town center) which is controlled by the incumbent Burahan family and Pata Likud (at the other side of the island) which is controlled by Commander Rendiyong Masilam. The heated rivalry between Rendiyong and the Burahans started when Rendiyong decided to challenge the incumbent mayor of Pata during the 1998 elections. Eventually, Rendiyong lost to Burahan in the elections which was attributed to his rival’s alleged control of election paraphernalia from the Poblacion which did not reach Likud. This election widened the rift between the two protagonists which developed into a feud.

This feud changed the landscape of Pata Island forever. Since this feud started in the 1998, land mines became a regular feature of Pata’s landscape. The feuding parties planted landmines to secure their respective territories from retaliatory attacks. Hence, the sad story of Pata continues to this day, with new families like the Adjails forced to join an old war caused by the same old problem of a defective electoral system, and the continuing rise in the number of land mine victims who are mostly civilians.

These cases simply illustrate how elections can serve to ignite conflict and then escalate into rido. Let’s hope – for the sake of the people of Sulu and the Philippines – this year’s elections go smoothly.

Editor’s Note: This version has been edited from the original to reflect current happenings. 

Wilfredo M. Torres is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer in the Philippines. He wrote a chapter on rido for the newly published book (PDF) Clan Conflicts and their Management in Human in Security in Complex Situations: The Case of Conflict in the Southern Philippines, published by the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network. He also edited the definitive reference book on clan violence and conflict resolution in the Philippines, Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. He can be reached at willy@asiafound.org.

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