Dividing Maguindanao province tightens ruling families’ bases in region, analysts say

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato City, Philippines
Dividing Maguindanao province tightens ruling families’ bases in region, analysts say Residents of Datu Abdullah Sangki town cast their vote in a referendum in Maguindanao, southern Philippines, Sept. 17, 2022
[Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

The mainly Muslim province of Maguindanao in the southern Philippines split into two after a plebiscite this past weekend, a move that solidifies ruling families’ bases in a region with a history of violence between rival political clans, analysts said.

The division of Maguindanao into separate provinces is ostensibly a push for better governance, but critics pointed to another reason for the province’s division: Political accommodation.

Almost all who voted in the plebiscite held on Saturday – 706,558, or just over 99 percent – agreed to divide the province into Maguindanao del Sur and Maguindanao del Norte, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said. A total of 5,209 voters, or less than 1 percent, voted against it.

With Maguindanao’s division, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will now have six provinces, instead of four. Naguib Sinarimbo, BARMM interior and local government minister, said the split would result in better representation for the people.

“We look forward to seeing the promise of good governance, peace and development, which our people from the two provinces truly deserve,” Sinarimbo said in a radio interview on Saturday.

In May 2021, then-President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act 11550, the law dividing the province, but a plebiscite was required to make it official.

Esmael Mangudadatu, a former Congressman from the region and one of the law’s proponents in the previous Congress, had said the division would lead to more efficient resource management and accessible public service.

Maguindanao is among the poorest provinces in the country, while BARMM remains the poorest region, according to 2021 data of the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Yet, the province and the region are home to some of the Philippines’ wealthiest and most powerful political dynasties with rival clans fighting it out with private armed groups.

Ramon Beleno III, a political science professor at the Ateneo De Davao University, told BenarNews that the plebiscite was an example of gerrymandering to avoid clashes between ruling clans.

“We give them the benefit of the doubt. The purpose was to have a better representation and for self-determination,” Beleno told BenarNews. “But it’s also a political accommodation for power sharing to avoid political violence.”

The creation of two provinces for Maguindinao effectively draws a line between the two ruling families of the Mangudadatus and Sinsuats, allowing them to solidify their bases, he said.

Under the law, current Maguindanao Gov. Mariam Mangudadatu would serve as the transitional leader of Maguindanao del Sur, while current Vice Gov. Ainee Sinsuat would serve as the governor of Maguindanao del Norte.

Both Mangudadatu and Sinsuat come from political families whose power extends beyond the province.

Mangudadatu’s husband, Suharto, was a former governor of Sultan Kudarat. Her son, Pax Ali, currently serves as its governor, and her cousin, Esmael Mangudadatu, was a former governor and member of Congress.

Meanwhile, Sinsuat’s husband, Lester, was a former Maguindanao vice governor and is currently the mayor of Datu Odin Sinsuat, the new capital of Maguindanao del Norte.

On Nov. 23, 2009, 58 people, including journalists and Mangudadatu family members, were massacred by members of the rival Ampatuan political clan, over politics.

Ampatuan clan members, backed by their supporters, stopped the convoy and gunned down the rivals before using a backhoe to try to bury the bodies in shallow pits.

More than a 100 people were charged for the killings, including the clan patriarch Andal Ampatuan Sr., who died in prison before the trial concluded. The case dragged on for a decade, until December 2019 when a regional trial court in Manila convicted dozens of the accused, mostly clan members.

More than 50 others, including dozens of police officers loyal to the Ampatuans, were acquitted and ordered free.


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