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SOUTHERN COMFORT: The untold story of the Ampatuans’ fall from political grace

GENERAL SANTOS CITY(MindaNews/ 30 November)–The whole nation was still raging and indignant on a Wednesday morning three years ago in 2009 when Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez, then president of Lakas-CMD, called former defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro.

His voice was firm but filled with utmost urgency.

Dominguez asked Teodoro to call a press conference by mid-afternoon.

“What for Migs?” Dominguez recalled Teodoro asking.

At that time, Teodoro was already the proclaimed Lakas-Kampi presidential candidate for the 2010 election.

“You announce we are expelling the Ampatuans from Lakas-Kampi,” Dominguez replied from the other end of the conversation.

“Totoo ka (Are you sure) Migs?” Teodoro asked Dominguez, who had become a close confidant.  After all, it was Dominguez who nominated Teodoro as standard bearer of Lakas-Kampi.

Day of Infamy

Less than 48 hours before Dominguez made the call that may have helped alter the course of history of local politics in Mindanao, he was in Malacañang for a meeting with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo together with other governors and leaders of the Lakas-Kampi, preparing for the elections the following year and monitoring the first day of the filing of certificates of candidacies for local elective posts.

All attentions were focused on that day as 2010 would be the first time the country will hold a nationwide automated election.

Dominguez recalled seeing former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan at the meeting.

By noon, however, Dominguez was already receiving frantic text messages and calls from close friends advising him that some 630 miles south from where he was seated, more than a dozen of close media friends had gone missing and were believed, then, to have been kidnapped by heavily armed men somewhere in Maguindanao.

Later in the afternoon, reports began filtering in that some of the missing journalists and media workers have been found dead.
He called former Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita to ask if the Palace was aware of what then was happening in Maguindanao only for the latter to ask him what was it all about.

The Sarangani governor also called the president who, at around 4 p.m. that day, according to him, was still clueless that her favorite allies in Magindanao had just committed wholesale murder of journalists and media workers, innocent motorists and members of a rival political clan.

In the evening, it dawned to everybody that the killings would exceed human comprehension as reports from the military and police dispatched to track down what happened were already suggesting that dozens may have been killed and that retrieval operations were still ongoing late into the night.

When Dominguez was able to confirm that some of the journalists and media workers who were found brutalized were the very same group of reporters who he has been meeting day in day out whenever he is at the provincial capitol, it enraged him no end.

When it also became clear the powerful political clan of the Ampatuans were involved in the gruesome mass murders, Dominguez was incensed even more.

For on the very moment he and Zaldy Ampatuan were just few seats apart in Malacañang, the latter’s brothers, in-laws and henchmen were pumping bullets into the heads and bodies of the victims, 58 in all of which 32 were members of the press, who were crying for mercy and begging for their dear lives.  Not a single one of them was spared.  It was a scene that brought memories from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II.

It was a sickening thought.

Let me take care of the President

As president of the then ruling party, Dominguez was then already starting to call the shots in Lakas-Kampi and the first thing he did the following day after the November 23 Ampatuan Massacre (many are still referring it as the Maguindanao Massacre) was to call for a meeting of the party executive committee.

He set it for November 25, two days after the massacre.

Before he could even be sure that he will get a quorum, much more a consensus, Dominguez was already determined to do what is politically and morally expected from him as party president.

“Pinatawag ko ang (Lakas) execom.  Ako na bahala kay Presidente (I called for an executive committee meeting. I will take care of the President),” Dominguez calmed a fidgety Teodoro as they ended their conversation that Wednesday morning.
Dominguez had earlier opted to stay in Manila after the Monday Malacañang meeting.

He was determined to let the wheels of justice begin to grind.  He believed it was the most judicious and most honorable thing to do.

The execom meeting, attended by party bigwigs, was tension-filled as some senior leaders are still trying to give the Ampatuans the chance to air their side.  He recalled former Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales, a member of the execom of Lakas, imploring due process before the Ampatuans are expelled from the party.

During the hastily called emergency meeting to expel the Ampatuans, Dominguez said the discussions on party guidelines and due process were very heated.

“One of them was Justice Gonzales who, as a lawyer, insisted on due process,” Dominguez recalled.

But he said, “This party (Lakas) is presented the opportunity to define itself today to stand for what is right as we have not done so in a long time.”

In the end, Dominguez got the decision he wanted from the vote of 7 of 10 execom members present in the meeting.  Minutes later, Teodoro arrived and was handed the resolution.

While Teodoro was on his way to face the press, Dominguez was also bound for Malacañang to follow up some unrelated business with the President.

Dropping the bomb

Before he left Malacañang, he told Arroyo: “By the way Madam President, we just expelled the Ampatuans from the party (Lakas-Kampi coalition).”
It caught Arroyo by surprise, who, Dominguez recalled, remained speechless up to the moment he left Malacañang.

Almost simultaneously, Teodoro tersely announced the expulsion of the Ampatuans from Lakas-Kampi.

It was swift and daring.

Once one of the most favored and powerful political clans, the Ampatuans became pariahs in politics overnight.  They protested and expressed dissatisfaction over Teodoro’s announcement expelling them from the party. But they found little or no sympathy.  Even their benefactor, the President, could not do anything against the national outcry and international indignation. The Ampatuans found themselves political orphans.

This writer was among the few to whom Dominguez shared the behind the scene events that led to the ouster of the Ampatuans from the party where they were once seen as “the untouchables.”  No thanks to their alleged role in the massive electoral frauds that benefited the President herself and many of the Lakas-Kampi senators who won in 2007.

Dominguez has repeatedly declined to make public his role in the ouster of the Ampatuans from the party from which he also resigned as a member after the 2010 elections.  Prior to that, Dominguez also quit as party president in the middle of the 2010 election campaign.

He said there will be time for telling what happened during those fateful three days in November where he stood by his own conviction.

Now that he will soon leave public office after three consecutive terms, he is reluctantly telling his story, adding that he is not offering a revisionist view of the darkest episode of electoral violence in the country and the most appalling attack against the media in the history of journalism.  (Edwin G. Espejo writes for www.asiancorrespondent.com)

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