SHARIFF AGUAK, Maguindanao, Philippines -- He doesn?t wear a bejeweled turban or sport a ceremonial kris, but Andal Ampatuan is as much a sultan as any.
You could walk past him without a second glance if it were not for the gold Rolex watch on his wrist and his thick gold ring, unusual in impoverished Mindanao. Or if you sensed the loaded revolver in a holster under his T-shirt.
Ampatuan is the governor of Maguindanao province, but he?s much more than that. He is a datu, or clan leader, and wields enough political power for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to call him a valuable ally.
A 65-year-old with jet black, close-cropped hair, Ampatuan has been elected governor twice unopposed, and fully expects to be similarly voted to power at elections in May. Of the 22 mayors in his province, 18 are sons, grandsons or other relatives, and they all are likely to be reelected -- also unopposed.
?It?s because of popular support,? the governor said in an interview at his farmhouse, sitting at the head of a long dining table as he tapped ash from a cigarette into a glass tumbler.
?Because I am so loved by the constituencies of the municipalities, they ask me to have my sons as representatives,? he said, speaking in the Maguindanaon language.
Critics talk of his large private army, payoffs to local military commanders and vice-like grip on local politics. But Ampatuan says he and his allies are all democratically elected.
If people don?t run against them, he says, that?s because they don?t have much chance of winning.
He has four wives and about 30 children, Ampatuan says. One son is the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, including Maguindanao.
His eldest son, then the mayor of Shariff Aguak, the provincial capital, was killed in 2002 in a bomb blast blamed on Moro separatists. Another son died the same month in a shootout in a disco.
The father and brother of one of the people involved in the disco gun battle were killed in an ambush within the hour. And tales abound of painful deaths suffered by those suspected in the bombing.
Tempted to seek revenge
Ampatuan says he has left investigations into the killing of his eldest son, and seven attempts on his own life, to the authorities.
?If I meet them (the assailants) face to face, I might not be able to control my emotions and I may be forced to extract revenge,? he says. ?But I have left it to the government to investigate.?
Maguindanao, with a population of about 500,000, lies in western Mindanao. The muddy Rio Grande River and a few single-lane roads, cut through jungle, marshland and low-lying hills, where coconuts, rice and corn are cultivated.
In the 2004 presidential election, Ms Arroyo won most of the votes in Maguindanao. In one town, her rivals did not get even a single vote.
?The outside world may call it rigging, but it?s the reality here,? says Norie Unas, Maguindanao provincial administrator and a cousin of the governor?s first wife.
?In the villages, people say, ?Whatever my boss wants, it?s OK. He?s providing for my family.? It?s clannish.?
Ampatuan says the overwhelming vote for Ms Arroyo came because the people supported her programs, and were loyal to him.
Asked who his constituents were more loyal to, he chuckled and said: ?More will follow me.?
Ampatuan has given no thought to retiring yet. He says he might after another three-year term as governor, and go back to his farm.
A datu?s wish
Most of all, Ampatuan says, he wants to be remembered as a good Muslim. One of his forefathers, Shariff Kabunsuan, was an Arab missionary who brought Islam to the southern Philippines in the 15th century.
Ampatuan?s main home, a mansion on the highway from Shariff Aguak to nearby Cotabato City, has an air-conditioned mosque in the yard, which can accommodate more than 100 people.
Across the road are other large houses, belonging to his sons. Reuters