Familiar and Familial Politics in Maguindanao

by Ariel Cusi Lopez

Delikado tayo doon, baka hindi na tayo makalabas nang buhay; hindi ka na makikita ng mga paryente mo (It is dangerous there, we may not be able to get out alive; your relatives may not be able to see you again),’ PO1 Makaampo cautioned [pseudonym is used to protect identity]. I wanted to visit the historic town of Pikit, Cotabato as a researcher qua tourist, but my police guide warned that without any relative or government contact in Pikit, it would be a great risk.

I assumed that the unexpected presence of a stranger in town, which in recent years has witnessed some of the worst fighting between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), may raise suspicions among rightfully vigilant residents. Besides, not far from Pikit town are the constantly-moving islands of the Liguasan Marsh where Umbra Kato, the renegade’ commander of the MILF is said to have his stronghold. So I followed PO1 Makaampo’s advice.         

I came to Maguindanao[1] in December last year to gather oral and textual sources that relate to its pre-twentieth century history. While other historians venture into the study of the past armed with extensive knowledge of the present, I was a novice in the current politics and contemporary history of Maguindanao. Doing research primarily on the Maguindanao Sultanate’s eighteenth century history, I may be faulted in viewing Maguindanao’s present from the perspective of such a seemingly long-gone era. But this perspective, as I came to realize, was not at all irrelevant in understanding its present.

In the documents left by eighteenth-century rulers of Maguindanao, one can glean the complex family alliances and rivalries that shaped the Sultanate’s rise and fall. One key example is that of the conflict between Sultan Bayan and his younger brother, Manamir. While Sultan Bayan claimed support from the upland chiefdom of Buayan, the Sulu sultanate and the coastal Iranuns, while his brother Manamir had the support of the people of Sarangani and Sangir island. The conflict also involved the support of European nations who had settlements near Maguindanao. Whereas Sultan Bayan counted on the support of the Dutch, Manamir relied on the Spaniards. Given that Manamir received more effective military and political support from Spain than his older brother did from his allies, the political contest ultimately ended with Manamir’s triumph. The faction of Sultan Bayan, however, continued the struggle by launching attacks in the settlement controlled by Manamir. These hostilities continued up to at least another two generations.  

This eighteenth-century political contest may be unknown to many, but the pattern of intra- and inter-family conflict is certainly familiar. A study funded by the Asia Foundation revealed that from the 1930s to 2005, more than 5,500 people had been killed because of the infamous rido, the bloody ‘clan feuding’ in and around Muslim Mindanao.[2] Numbers are most likely higher, given that many of these cases were unreported, or perhaps simply not counted as related to a ‘clan feud’. Rido itself is a complex phenomenon not only confined to the realm of the personal, but deeply intertwined with economic and political motives. What this study highlights, however, is the fact that conflicts and the path to solve such conflicts remain within the sphere of the (extended) family. Whereas modern societies rely on such institutions as the police and the courts to settle disputes, many still count on the justice based on a pre-modern practice.    

The practice of rido reflects the situation in Maguindanao, as much as it reflects the Philippine state and its political precedents. As one historian puts it, Maguindanao is one of those areas which ‘experienced centuries of imperial violence without the benefits of colonial administration’.[3] The notoriously weak Philippine state has been unable to change the system and perhaps even exacerbates the situation by relying on select political families to keep the area under nominal state control. As the Ampatuan Massacre shows, these families acted as feudal lords with almost absolute powers endowed by a willing patron at the imperial capital of Manila.    

In the aftermath of the massacre, public discussions in Manila revolved around the prosecution of the Ampatuan family members. Very few intended to delve deep into the situation that spawned the horrific massacre. Perhaps the sight of then-Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu weeping for the loss of his wife and relatives, and pointing the blame at the rival Ampatuan family is enough for many to understand that this was another political contest which closely involved family members. The pattern is familiar to Filipinos all over because they had seen it in their own barangays, towns, provinces and ultimately, in the national arena of politics. What is shocking is not so much the conflict itself, but the manner in which the conflict surfaced.                      

The predominance of select families in Maguindanao political life will likely remain, as there is no imminent sign that the larger Philippine state will change. While the foundations of Moro separatism was partly inspired by the idea of a political sphere in Muslim Mindanao beyond the level of families[4],  the Philippine state stubbornly if not absent-mindedly relies on its co-optation of these very families. The question remains: to what extent will the Bangsamoro basic law strengthen modern institutions of justice in order to undermine the power of these families? 

In my last day in Maguindanao, a friend agreed to lend her car so I can travel to Pikit. She assured me that it was okay to visit the town as long as we did not spend the night on the road. I came to see PO1 Makaampo, with whom I established a friendship throughout my stay, and asked if he could join my day trip. He politely refused and revealed that he has a rido with certain people from Pikit.               


[1]Maguindanao is used in this essay to connote not only the present province of Maguindanao, but also the city and province of Cotabato.

[2] http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/PHridoexcerpt.pdf

[3]Engseng Ho, ‘Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat,’ Comparative Study of Society and History 46, no. 2 (April 2004): 237.

[4]See Thomas M. McKenna, Muslim Rebels and Rulers, Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ariel Cusi Lopez is a PhD candidate in History at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He previously taught at the UP Diliman Department of History.

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