MALACAÑANG YESTERDAY distanced itself from the mass murder in Maguindanao, saying it was ?an incident between two families in Mindanao.?
?We cannot be affected by that? This has nothing to do with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo or the administration,? Lorelei Fajardo, Ms Arroyo?s deputy spokesperson, told reporters.
Asked if the administration had the political will to punish a close ally who might have been involved in the killings, Fajardo said: ?If the public would know that we are sincere and that we are doing our best to give justice to the victims, I think that would vindicate us in case there would be impressions later on.?
The President has found herself in the eye of the storm owing to her close ties with Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his family, who are believed responsible for the massacre on Monday of political rivals, lawyers and journalists.
But according to Gabriel Claudio, her adviser on political affairs, Ms Arroyo has personally assured the Mangudadatu family that justice would be served.
She made the promise during emotional phone calls with Sultan Kudarat Gov. Datu Mangudadatu and Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu of Buluan, Maguindanao, soon after the massacre, Claudio told reporters.
?Disappointment is an understatement,? he said. ?There is pain all over. The families of the victims are crying for justice. We cry with them. We weep with them. We share the pain, especially because the victims concerned are friends and members of the same political party.?
Asked if the Palace was willing to sever ties with the Ampatuans in case they were proven guilty, Claudio said: ?You can be sure that politics will not get in the way. Justice will be served and the perpetrators of this crime will not go unpunished.?
Former senatorial candidate Aquilino ?Koko? Pimentel III yesterday said the Ampatuans were a ?creation? of Ms Arroyo.
?This is really an acid test for her,? Pimentel told the Inquirer. ?What?s more important? The debt of gratitude because you are President because of their support, or the lives of the Filipino people and justice for those who lost their lives senselessly??
Pimentel said Ms Arroyo owed a lot to the Ampatuans, particularly in the 2004 presidential election when they delivered the votes for her in the province over opposition standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr.
Three years later in the senatorial race, Maguindanao delivered a controversial 12-0 sweep for the administration?s Team Unity ticket.
Pimentel said that with such incidents, the Ampatuans could always tell Ms Arroyo: ?You owe us big time.?
In 2007, Governor Ampatuan Sr. explained the 12-0 sweep as the product of ?command? votes in Maguindanao?meaning, voters obeyed whatever their leaders told them in voting.
But Pimentel said it was more of a case of ?commandeered? votes, citing stolen ballot boxes and faked ballots.
?[The Ampatuans] have absolute control over the province, not out of respect but due to fear,? he said.
Pimentel is still contesting the 12th and final slot in the 2007 senatorial race won by Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri. In Maguindanao in that year, Pimentel said he got 67,000 votes against Zubiri?s 195,000.
Asked how the Ampatuans supposedly managed to control elections in the province, Pimentel said: ?That remains the biggest mystery because no witness has ever dared come out.?
?Now we know why?it?s dangerous,? he said, citing the mass murder.
But the administration cannot just ignore the massacre purportedly masterminded by its political ally, Pimentel said. ?This is a crime too big to hide.?
No sacred cows
But Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said ?no one will be untouchable in this case.?
He sought to douse suspicion that the administration might hold its punches in case the Ampatuans were officially implicated in the massacre.
He pointed out that both the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus belonged to the administration party.
?I would like to make it clear that the orders of President Arroyo are very clear and very succinct?to ensure that there is an impartial investigation of this dastardly act no matter who gets hurt, especially considering that this violence is something that is really unconscionable and cannot be tolerated,? Remonde said at a media briefing.
Said Claudio: ?Suffice it to say that whether [the perpetrators are] party members or not, we consider this massacre something that is beyond comprehension, beyond justification, and beyond sanity.?
Claudio said the Palace had earlier initiated mediation between the two families to prevent political violence in Maguindanao in the May elections.
At least three meetings took place in July, August and October, he said. ?We were hoping ... to help them settle their differences before things got out of hand.?
Claudio recalled that Ms Arroyo sat in at one meeting, during which the Ampatuans and the Mangudadatus acknowledged their ?family ties.?
He said another meeting was hosted by then Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr.
Claudio said there was an initial agreement ?in principle? that no Mangudadatu would contest Ampatuan Sr.?s gubernatorial post.
?Before we could renew efforts to settle these differences, this happened. So it pains us,? Claudio said.
He added: ?On the political side, we also would like to know where the breakdown happened. But this would have to take a back seat. What is more important is law enforcement. Criminal investigation has to be done and completed as swiftly, decisively and objectively as possible.?
Claudio also said the government would ?leave no stone unturned to help the families of the victims, establish the truth [and] the facts, and serve the ends of justice.?