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MAGUINDANAO, Philippines – Three years after becoming governor Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu claims he's still the same man who lost a wife and two sisters in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre. He has not changed, he says.
It was a Friday and, by tradition, a rest day for Muslims. Mangudadatu did not schedule any political rally. We arrived before noon in his sprawling ranch of more than 1,000 hectares in his hometown of Buluan; he begged off from starting the interview until after his mid-day prayer.
The 49-year-old governor maintains a modest walled house inside the ranch where he raises free-range chicken. His aides and ranch workers joined the governor in a spartan mosque built just adjacent to the house. Some solar-powered street lamps dotted the path from the steel gate to his house. There were no uniformed personnel acting as bodyguards and if his aides were armed, they probably kept their weapons out of sight.
His critics paint a different image of the man. They say he's always in Manila, owns flashy cars and has been living the high life. They say he broke a campaign promise to move the provincial capitol from Sharif Aguak, the Ampatuan's symbol of power, to the town of Sultan Kudarat. He usually holds office now in Buluan.
Mangudadatu debunks all that. But he admits he fears for his safety even in his own province. He travels in a convoy when on a road trip. Or he rents a helicopter, saying it's more expensive to travel in convoys.
Mangudadatu is calm and collected during the interview; it's the same demeanor he showed after the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre that shook the whole world. The gruesome murders claimed the life of his wife, two sisters, several other relatives, as well as 32 journalists and media workers.
He keeps on reminding everyone that the culprits of the massacre have not been punished and that he won’t mind bringing up this issue against his lone opponent -- Tucao Mastura -- who has formed an alliance with the Ampatuans, the accused masterminds of the killings.
Allies are now foes
The story of Maguindanao politics this election year is familiar: former allies have turned into bitter foes.
Mastura is Mangudadatu's former campaign manager in the 2010 elections. Mangudadatu says that since he won the race, however, Mastura never treated him as the governor. In fact, it was Mastura who's been acting like he's the governor, Mangudadatu adds, recalling instances when they had to seek Mastura's approval of projects for the province.
Closely allied with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) -- his brother Michael being a key MILF leader -- Mastura held a huge political rally recently wherein he said there was no way he could lose in these elections.
Mangudadatu is the candidate of the Liberal Party of President Benigno Aquino III, who is dead set on signing a peace pact with the MILF. To prevent the peace process from being hijacked by politicians, the MILF has declared a "hands-off" policy in the gubernatorial race. But Maguindanao politics is not as simple as that.
In previous interviews and campaign sorties, Mastura himself has been saying that the MILF central committee is backing his gubernatorial bid. Mangudadatu says Mastura is lying. He says he had spoken with MILF chief Al Haj Murad and was assured that the rebel movement will play neutral in the polls. "Magkikita nga kami ni (Ibrahim Al Haj) Murad. Nagtatawagan kami. Ganito na lang kasi, nag-pronounce na si Murad na walang sinusuportahan, bakit kini-claim niya (Mastura) pa rin hanggang ngayon. Magaling siya magsalita. Dito kasi sa amin kasi, 90 percent ang hindi nakapag-aral. Ang dali mong ilihis ang mind ng tao. Dapat hindi siya ganyan. Matanda na siya. Dapat hindi siya nagsisinungaling. Napakasinungaling niya."
(I will be seeing Murad. He has already declared that he will not be supporting anybody. So why is Mastura claiming otherwise? He's such an eloquent speaker, taking advantage of the majority who are not educated. He's old already. He should stop lying. He's such a liar.)
The animosity between the two candidates has raised concerns that the elections in the province could once again turn violent. So far, the fragile peace is holding. Mangudadatu himself hopes the verbal war won't escalate into violence.
Mangudadatu has counted at least 6 serious attempts on his life, most of them roadside bombings. He cheated death in at least two of them.
But he also has his fair share of reports of unexplained killings. A week before our interview with Mangudadatu, Rappler received an email purportedly enumerating the people killed by the governor’s henchmen. The list contained 29 incidents of political killings. It cannot be independently verified, however.
He was also linked to the death of Tamano Mamalapat who was shot dead inside a mall in Davao City in February 2010. Mamalapat was mistaken for a close aide of former Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. Mangudadatu however was cleared of any involvement in the killing.
The governor and his running mate Lester Sinsuat are up against two of the elders in Maguindanao politics: Tucao Mastura and his running mate Ali Midtimbang.
Midtimbang is the father-in-law of detained former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov Gov Zaldy Ampatuan. Mangudadatu insists that the money that Midtimbang is using for the elections comes from the Ampatuans. Residents of Maguindanao should not bring back the Ampatuans via the backdoor, he says. "Alalahanin lang nating lagi na yung perang ginagamit nila ay pera ni Zaldy ‘yan. Nakatagong pera at pera ng mga Ampatuan iyan. Ano? Gusto ba natin palabasin ang mga Ampatuan uli? Gusto ba natin i-resurrect uli (the Ampatuans)?
The Mangudadatus have always felt they have been treated unfairly by the royal families up north in the province. They feel they are the last among equals although his grandmother is a Sinsuat, one of the oldest royal families of Maguindanao.
He prides himself for slowly transforming the violence-prone Maguindanao into the next investment destination of ARMM. Dole Philippines Inc., he says, just set up a 1,000-hectare banana plantation in Datu Abdullah Sangki town.
Once very accessible to the local media, Mangudadatu now maintains distance from them. He told a correspondent of a broadsheet that the media have reportedly abused his generosity and often solicit money from him in the guise of coverage. At the end of the interview, however, his aide approached Rappler and tried to give us a thick wad of P500 bills, which we politely declined.
Below are excerpts from our interview with Mangudadatu on April 26:
Rappler: In 2010, you had an alliance with the Masturas. What went wrong?
Mangudadatu: Sila ang nag-umpisa. Sila ang nag-umpisa talaga. Ang nangyari, nakipag-usap ako kay caretaker Gani (Biruar), yung ginawang caretaker governor after the massacre kasama si Mayor Ibay (of Parang town). Kasama ‘ata nuon si (Alexander) Tomawis, ‘di ko matandaan. Itong escort ni Ibay nagte-text duon sa escort ni (Vice Governor) Dustin Mastura…Nuong malaman niya (Dustin), yun, ti-next ako ni Dustin. 'O kumakamada ka na pala diyan. Akala mo kung sino ka na. Kinakausap mo pala ang mga kalaban namin. Alalahanin mo, di ka manalo kung di dahil sa amin.’ Parang nag-blaze yung (isip) ko. Sabi kinausap ko si OIC Gani kasi sa transition natin. Okay nakaharap ko si Mayor Ibay na kalaban niyo and (Barira Vice Mayor) Tomawis hindi dahil sa kakampi ko sila kundi dahil sa governor ako ngayon. That was the first pang-iinsulto na natanggap ko sa kanila. Noong tumakbo na ang panahon, dumidistansya na ako sa kanila.
(They started it. [Vice Governor] Dustin Mastura accused me early on of laying the groundwork for my gubernatorial bid. [Editor's note: Dustin Mastura is a nephew of Tucao Mastura]. He said, "Who do you think you are? Remember you would not have won without our support." In due time I had to distance myself from them.)
Rappler: How were they treating you?
Mangudadatu: Marami na silang sinasabi…yung vice governor ko. Tapos nagpapirma kami ng resolution na yung dredging machine para sa Liguasan (marsh) para hindi kami mag-overflooding pinunit ni Tucao (Mastura) kasi sisikat daw si Toto Mangudadatu. Sabi ko, huwag naman ganun.
(My vice governor was spreading things about me. Then we drafted a resolution for the dredging machine for Liguasan marsh to avoid flooding. Tucao Mastura refused to sign since he said that project would make me popular. I said, they shouldn't be doing these things.)
Rappler: Tucao (Mastura) claims he was your campaign manager in the 2010 elections.
Mangudadatu: Oo nga. Pero huwag naman ganun. Huwag na nating idamay ang taumbayan. So nag-propose ang mga board member ng resolution papipirmahan kay vice governor. Pinakita niya (Dustin) kay Tucao. Itong dredging machine, plus P50 million na nursery ng palm oil at rubber kasi ito yung project namin na malalaki. Tapos yung provincial jail natin sa Maguindanao gusto naming ipa-repair at ilipat sa Parang. Yung cultural center natin. Basta all in all, ang proposed projects namin ay P660 million. Para naman iyun sa tao. So yung ginawa niya (Tucao), nuong pinakita na ni vice governor (Dustin), pinunit niya. Sabi niya hindi puwede ito aprubahan.
(They should not make the public suffer. Our provincial board members proposed this resolution to the vice governor. The project included the dredging machine and a P50-M nursery for palm and rubber oil. And then we also wanted to repair our provincial jail and transfer it to Parang. Plus our cultural center. The total cost of the projects was P660-M. That's for the people. But when Dustin Mastura showed it to Tucao Mastura, Tucao tore the resolution apart. He said this should not be approved.)
Rappler: Are you saying that all this time Tucao Mastura has been acting like he's the governor?
Mangudadatu: Parang ganun ba …in charge of the government of Maguindanao. Huwag naman. Kung hindi kami makapagpaalam sa kanya, ganun ang gagawin nila? So dumating sa punto na nagkaroon na kami ng reconciliation ni Alex Tomawis. Sabi ko, kung ganito man lang yung alliance namin ni Tucao, e, better cool off na lang. So nakipag-reconcile ako sa kanila (political foes of the Masturas). Kasi gusto ko wala ng gulo sa Maguindanao. (Editor's note: The governor invited Tomawis to the foundation anniversary of Maguindanao on Nove 19, 2010. Tomawis attended but was slain in Davao City six days later)
(It seems that way, that he wants to be in charge of Maguindanao. This shouldn't be the case. It reached a point when I had to reconcile with Alex Tomawis. I thought that if I have this relationship with Tucao, it is best to reach out to former rivals. Because I want to avoid trouble in Maguindanao.)
Rappler: Mastura claims you personally followed up the case filed against him in connection with Tomawis' murder.
Mangudadatu: Kasagsagan pa yun nga ano e…pina-follow-up ko yung Maguindano massacre. Nagkasabay na kami ng nanay, asawa at supporters ni Alex Tomawis sa DOJ. Nabigla na lang ako, (inakusahan nila) ako daw ang nagpa-file ng kaso ni Tucao.
(I was in Manila to check updates on the Maguindanao massacre case. I happened to see the wife and supporters of Tomawis at the Department of Justice. But I was shocked to learn that Tucao was already accusing me of being the one who filed the case against him.)
Rappler: Mastura claims you reneged on your promise to establish the provincial capitol in Sultan Kudarat.
Mangudadatu: Gusto ko sanang ilipat duon at gusto ko sanang i-rehab yun. Pero hindi nila inaprobahan yung rehabilitation para duon. Tiningnan ko kung duon talaga ang seat of government. Sa Sharif Aguak.
(I really wanted to move it there. But they didn't approve the recommended rehabilitation project for it. I'm checking now if the seat of government is really Sharif Aguak.)
Rappler: The provincial capitol in Sharif Aguak has become a white elephant.
Mangudadatu: White elephant? Hindi naman puede sabihin na white elephant. Doon sila (provincial board) nag-oopisina ngayon.
(It's not a white elephant. The provincial board holds its meetings there.)
Rappler: What can you say about the claim of Mastura that they have the support of the big clans of Maguindano – the Pendatuns, the Mangelens, the Sinsuats, the Baragirs?
Mangudadatu: (Laughing) Wala, ah. Nasa akin yung mga Pendatuns, Baragirs… OK they have the Midtimbangs, sabihin natin meron silang municipality – tatlo. Pero may kalaban pa yung isa. Yung dalawang munisipyo mga 10,000 voters lang. (Maguindanao has 543,034 registered voters but was reduced to 440,332 after a Comelec purge.)
(The Pendatuns, Baragirs are with me. They have the Midtimbangs. Let's assume they have 3 municipalities, but two of these have only 10,000 votes).
Rappler: Does it hurt you that your former allies are now with the Ampatuans?
Mangudadatu: Oo naman. Pero ini-expect ko naman yan kasi ang asawa niya (Tucao) is an Ampatuan. Si Maruja. Kasi naman ang politics naman walang permanent alliance.
(Yes, but I expected that. In politics, there are no permanent alliances.)
Rappler: Are the Ampatuans still a force to reckon with in Maguindanao?
Mangudadatu: After 14 siguro sa May, doon natin malalaman. Taongbayan pa rin ang puwede nating tanungin.
(We will know after May 14. It's still the people we should be asked that question.)
Rappler: What changes have been made in Maguindanao since you became governor?
Mangudadatu: Noong maging governor ako dito sa Maguindanao, wala kang makitang baril. Ayoko. Sinabihan ko yung ang mga mayor huwag tayo bitbit ng baril Ipakita nating nagbago na tayo. Pangalawa, yung IDPs (internally displaced persons), na-zero tayo. Pangatlo yung development although (still) slow. Pero happy ang mga tao. Nakapag-negosyo. Nakapagtanim.
(You don't see men brandishing guns. There are no internally displaced persons. And there's development, though still slow. People are happy. They have their livelihood projects. They're able to plant.)
Rappler: What separates you from the Masturas?
Mangudadatu: Yung kanilang pagka-mataas. Hindi naming kayang abutin. Kailangan pakumababa ka.
(They're proud. One needs to be humble.)
Rappler: You were one of the Mindanao governors who fully declared their assets. The PCIJ came up with a report noting the spike in your net worth. And Mastura used that against you.
Read: The wealth of Gov Toto
Mangudadatu: Ok lang yun. Yung plantation ng parents ko, yung ranchohan. Tatlo yung plantations ng parents ko. Pati yung lake, dineclare ko yung 500 hectares. Ang akin naman para makatulong sa taxes. O, sige, tanggalin natin yun (assets), sino ang mayaman sa amin ni Tucao?
(Those are the plantations of my parents, including the ranch. My parents have 3 plantations. I declared even the lake - 500 hectares. So I can help government with tax revenues. If you remove those assets, who is richer between me and Tucao?)
Rappler: Both camps are accusing each other of unexplained killings. Please comment.
Mangudadatu: Dapat matagal na nilang (in-expose) yan. Bakit ngayon lang na may election? Para ma-distract lang at ma-distort ang situation?
(They should have exposed that a long time ago. Why are they doing this during elections? To distract people from real issues and distort the situation?)
Rappler: Are you confident of winning?
Mangudadatu: Oo naman.With the reception ng tao na nakaisa ko. And ‘yung services na naibigay namin.
(Yes, of course - given the reception I've been getting from the people. And the services we have given them.) - Rappler.com
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