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Analysts: Rise in killings portent of RP’s most violent election yet

Analysts: Rise in killings portent of RP’s most violent election yet
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—A series of killings since the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao province in November last year has set the stage for the country’s most violent election in recent history, experts warn.

Politicians defying a government crackdown and running their own small armies are one of the key trends behind the political murders, according to independent monitors and officials trying to stem the bloodshed.

“There are just too many private armies, goons for hire and entrepreneurs of violence,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

“The government must urgently find ways to deter armed groups and ensure they are not used for election-related purposes,” Banlaoi added.

Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Verzosa underlined the government concern over campaign violence when he flew to Cotabato City Thursday and urged politicians to eschew the use of force in pursuing their political ambitions.

“It’s time for us to forget the violence that has marred the past elections,” Verzosa said in Filipino.

Fear of more killings

More than 90 people have already been killed in the run-up to the national elections in May, according to the institute.

This includes the 57 people who were killed last Nov. 23 in Maguindanao allegedly by followers of the Ampatuans, a Muslim clan then closely allied to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in order to wipe out a rival politician’s challenge. More than 30 media workers caught in the middle of the political conflict were among those massacred.

With the political tensions still to peak, Banlaoi said the Philippines was on track to surpass the 189 people killed in the last presidential election six years ago, which was regarded as the most violent in recent memory. [The Inquirer Archives list 148 dead in the 2004 elections.]

“Based on current pre-election trends we are monitoring, 2010 may see the most violent elections in recent history,” Banlaoi said.

People kill for power

Dante Jimenez, a member of a presidential commission created to dismantle private armies following the Maguindanao massacre, offered an equally gloomy scenario.

“There are really expectations that this will turn out to be a very bloody election,” Jimenez said.

“People will kill each other because of interests involved. A politician’s salary is not that big, but it’s not easy to let go of influence and power and the huge business interests that come with it. That includes illegal activities.”

Love for guns

Jimenez said the commission knew of at least 117 so-called private armies being run by politicians across the country.

The Ampatuan clan accused of the Maguindanao massacre allegedly had about 100 members of its private army carry out those murders, with the victims part of a convoy of people traveling to the provincial capitol where the clan’s rival was to file his certificate of candidacy for governor.

Analysts say the culture of political violence in the Philippines can be partly blamed on rampant gun ownership.

There are more than 1.2 million unlicensed firearms and 1.8 million registered ones, according to police estimates. This means there is an average of roughly one gun for every three Filipinos.

‘Easy as buying candy’

A weak gun control law that allows civilians to carry licensed firearms with special permits has perpetuated the culture of violence, according to Nandy Pacheco, founder of the lobby group Gunless Society.

“Buying firearms in the Philippines is like buying candy, it’s very easy. And for a certain fee, stores will actually help you process your permit-to-carry license even without checking backgrounds,” Pacheco said.

Among the dozens of victims in recent months was Joen Caniete, 36, whose death at the hands of anonymous gunmen in December last year was typical of the way politicians are killed in the Philippines.

Caniete, a member of the Nacionalista Party (NP) and running for town councilor in Ilocos Norte, and about 40 colleagues were ambushed as they returned from a Christmas gathering.

Two other NP candidates running for local posts elsewhere in the country were also killed that same week, while a fourth was felled in January.

Verzosa’s appeal

“The best measure for safety is to really have as few enemies as possible, but there really is no guarantee,” said NP spokesperson Gilbert Remulla.

“If somebody really wants to kill you, they will find a way to do so,” Remulla added

In Cotabato City, Verzosa called on religious leaders to actively participate in guarding the ballots and ensuring credible elections in May.

“We are seeking the help of our religious leaders because we know that they would guide us [in our efforts] to attain peaceful elections,” Verzosa told local candidates who gathered for a peace covenant.

He said religious groups could help in the voters’ education campaign and also influence their flock, including the candidates, to “embrace our advocacy for credible elections.”

Together with other senior PNP officials, Verzosa flew to Cotabato City to oversee the peace covenant and check on election security preparations.

Verzosa was expected to meet with Muslim and tribal leaders and representatives of civil society groups in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Reports from Agence France-Presse and Marlon Ramos