MANILA, Philippines—A month ago, Zaldy Ampatuan told national TV that he is willing to do what many consider the unthinkable. Having spent 18 months in jail, the suspended governor said he will tell the truth behind the Maguindanao massacre, his father and brother be damned.
“Wala na akong pakialam kung magalit sila sa akin. Ang importante po dito makasama ko ang pamilya ko dahil wala akong kinalaman. Hindi pupwedeng magsawalang kibo na lang ako at lahat ng kaso ibabagsak nila sa akin.” (I don’t care if they get mad at me. What is important here is I get to be with my family because I am innocent. I can’t just keep quiet while they file all sorts of cases against me.)
Relatives of some of the victims of the killings and their lawyers saw a different endgame in Ampatuan’s turnaround.
“The entire Ampatuan clan, and not just Zaldy, appears desperate to have one of them released. Why? For the obvious reason that with the patriarch and Zaldy behind bars, the clan’s vast financial and political assets are in disarray,” wrote private prosecutor Harry Roque in a newspaper column.
“Unless one of them is released, and it may as well be Zaldy since he’s the only educated member of the clan, all their assets, including the frozen ones, may all come to naught,” Roque added.
Zaldy is tagged as a principal co-conspirator in the massacre of at least 57 people, mostly women and journalists. He is accused of helping his father, Andal Ampatuan Sr., and brother, prime suspect Andal “Unsay” Ampatuan Jr., plan the murders on November 23, 2009.
Unlike his father and brother, Zaldy has yet to be arraigned because of a pending petition at the Court of Appeals to exclude him in the case. He maintains he was not in Maguindanao when the murders were planned and carried out.
One of Zaldy’s lawyers, Howard Calleja, objects to what he calls the prosecutors’ attempt to taint his client with political color.
“We cannot demonize the person because of the name or the name because of the person.Ang akin lang, let us look at the individual, person to person. Ginawa ba niya ito? Kaya ba niyang gawin ito?” (Did he do this? Is he capable of doing this?)
In his father’s shadow
Zaldy Ampatuan is the highest ranking politician among Andal Sr.’s children. He was elected twice as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) after becoming mayor of Shariff Aguak, the Ampatuan bailiwick and Maguindanao’s provincial capital. Unsay, his younger brother, was mayor of Datu Unsay town in Maguindanao at the time of the killings.
Zaldy is a college graduate while Unsay did not finish grade school. Their father is an elementary school dropout who only reached grade 4.
Despite this status, sources familiar with the clan and ARMM politics said Zaldy still deferred to Andal Sr., who made up for his lack of education with political genius.
Building alliances with influential clans, a private army and wealth, the family patriarch ruled the province with an iron fist. Andal Sr.’s cozy ties with the military and then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and his ability to deliver command votes cemented his grasp on power. (Read: Guns, Fealty, and Money)
A former official of the Arroyo administration who worked with the Ampatuans said even when Zaldy became ARMM governor, he remained in his father’s shadow.
“This was not an Andal consulting his son in the decisions he was making. It was more of the father dictating on the son,” said the source who refused to be named. “The father was too overpowering.”
Former Anak Mindanao partylist representative Mujiv Hataman attested to this. A native of the ARMM province of Basilan, Hataman got to know Zaldy when the latter submitted budget proposals to Congress.
During the budget hearings, Hataman questioned Zaldy about the allocations of ARMM, specifically why Maguindanao got the lion’s share of the funds. Hataman said that after the hearings, Zaldy would tell him, “Boss, pasensya ka na kasi si Ama. Alam mo naman, wala rin akong magawa.” (Boss, I’m sorry, it’s my father. You know I also cannot do anything).
Hataman told Newsbreak, “Regional governor siya. Hindi ko alam kung hindi niya alam ang ginagawa niya or talagang takot siya sa tatay niya.” (He was the regional governor. I don’t know if he did not know what he was doing or he was just afraid of this father.)
A family insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, said Zaldy was not the favorite son.
“Favorite si Datu Unsay. Sinasabi ng tatay nila iyan openly. Sinasabi nga niya, ‘Swerteng anak sa akin itong si Datu Unsay, si junior.’ Nagsimula daw ang kanyang swerte sa buhay nang ipinanganak si Datu Unsay.” (Datu Unsay is the favorite. Their father openly says that. He says “Datu Unsay is a lucky child, my junior.” He says his luck began when Datu Unsay was born.)
But the source said Zaldy did not bear a grudge against his father and brother as he was an obedient son and a kind sibling. “So wala namang tendency na magtalikod siya sa tatay niya. Nobody expected it would get to that point.” (So he had no tendency to turn his back on his father.)
Sincerity or conspiracy
Did Zaldy finally stand his ground?
In an interview with ABS-CBN last July 11, Zaldy said he had stopped talking to his father and brother for three months. He was also transferred to another detention cell but Calleja said this was due to medical reasons.
The same source who is close to the Ampatuan family believes Zaldy is sincere and the rift in the clan is true. He said relatives who visited the detained Ampatuans reported that their relationship now is “very cold.”
Calleja said Zaldy’s children played a key role in his decision to speak up. “Sinabi nga niya that the children have been forced to stop schooling. The children have not so good experiences in school, with some classmates, some friends, some people. May mgabiases, may mga opinions na so siyempre mga bata ito (There are biases, opinions and of course, these are children).”
A lawyer for the families of 26 victims, Nena Santos, is far from convinced. She suspects a scheme is in the works.
“Most dangerous pa nga iyan siya among them all. Siya ang may isip eh. Tingnan mo, lahat ng properties niya, hindi nakapangalan sa kanya. Nakapangalan sa wife niya, safather-in-law and mother-in law niya, at sa mga dummies.” (He is even the most dangerous among them all. He is the one with brains. All of his properties are not under his name. They are named under his wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and dummies.)
A report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism on the wealth of the Ampatuans seems to support Santos’ statement. “Surprisingly, in the Davao City Assessor’s list, there is no property under the name of suspended ARMM Governor Zaldy, who is theoretically second in power in the family after Andal Sr., and even though a mansion on Kalamansi St. in Juna Subdivision is widely believed to be his.”
“The Davao City assessor’s list, however, does have three properties in the name of Zaldy’s wife Bongbong … with a total market value of P1.21 million,” the report said.
Private prosecutor Harry Roque cited the reaction of the lawyer of Andal Sr. and Unsay as a sign that the two are in on Zaldy’s plan. Sigfrid Fortun has said that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima should not have dismissed outright the possibility of Zaldy becoming a state witness in the massacre case. Roque asked: “Is that the word of a lawyer of a father about to be implicated by a son?”
Maguindanao Gov. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu shares the same skepticism. He claimed that Zaldy’s plan to change his last name is part of the ploy. “Anong gusto niya, Ampathreeone? Paawa (iyan), para sabihin sa taumbayan na ‘Wala ako diyan. Ito ang patunay, kahit ang apilyedo ko, ayoko na rin eh.’” (What surname does his want, Ampathreeone? It’s an attempt to get public sympathy, as if to say ‘I was not there. Here’s the proof, I even want to change my last name.)
The post that Mangudadatu occupies was what Unsay wanted. Unsay allegedly led armed men in stopping and killing the members of the convoy that intended to submit Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao governor in the 2010 election.
Mangudadatu’s first wife and several relatives were killed. His family was once allied with the Ampatuans.
Mangudadatu thinks the crux of Zaldy’s exposés is politics, possibly the 2013 election. President Aquino and his allies pushed for the postponement of the ARMM election from August 2011 to May 2013 to implement reforms like cleaning the voters’ list and dismantling private armies.
“‘Pag napalabas si Zaldy (If Zaldy is freed), that’s the beginning of their resurrection.”
Calleja rejected the allegations of conspiracy. He reiterated that Zaldy has said several times that he is no longer interested in running or being appointed.
“We are throwing our support to whoever would be appointed [ARMM officer-in-charge] by the President as long as the intention is for peace, progress, development, reform of Mindanao. We are willing to help in whatever capacity they would like. We can be quiet in ourselves, live peacefully and be a happy family.”
Money, power and Aquino
Whether there is a conspiracy or not, what is clear is that the massacre did not end the Ampatuans’ reign.
In 2010, seven Ampatuans won mayoral posts in Maguindanao, including one implicated in the crime. Some of the mayors are the wives of the detained Ampatuans. (See Sidebar:With men in jail, the wives rule)
Mujiv Hataman, the former congressman now reportedly being considered for the ARMM OIC post, doubts the Ampatuans can win back the governorship of Maguindanao and ARMM. Although the family still controls the municipalities they held and created, Hataman said traditional clans will be wary of aligning with them after the massacre.
But Mangudadatu is not as optimistic. “Pera kasi, powerful ang pera. Napakarami pa nilang pera. Meron pa silang pinapaano na pera sa labas.” (Money is powerful. They still have lots of money. They still have money they use outside detention.)
Hataman said much depends on Aquino and his promised reforms in ARMM.
“Meron kang isang administrayon na gusto ng tunay na demokrasya, tingin mo ito-tolerate pa ang ginagawa nila? Tingin ko rin, ‘pag hindi i-tolerate ang pinagagawa nila, hindi sila mananalo.” (You have an administration that wants genuine democracy, you think it will tolerate what they are doing? I think if they will not be tolerated, they will not win.)