IT is alarming that in less than three days – Saturday afternoon to Monday night – three murders of local officials were carried out in Mindanao. The first occurred Saturday, when Marawi City police chief Al Abner Wahab Santos was killed when his vehicle was ambushed. Two more victims – Loreto, Agusan del Sur mayor Dario Otaza and his son Daryl – were discovered Tuesday morning bound and shot multiple times, after having been kidnapped from their home Monday night by a group of men posing as agents of the National Bureau of Investigation.
Malacañang has issued the expected statements condemning these attacks while law enforcement officials seek the perpetrators. And while nothing about the motives for the killings can be known with any certainty until the killers are caught, speculations have already begun to circulate. In the case of Chief Santos, the presumption is that his death was connected to a criminal matter he was investigating. Mayor Otaza, who was a Manobo and a former NPA fighter, is a bit more complicated; his death may have been related to his Lumad connections, his past as a rebel, or his current office.
The motive for a crime is important, but is not necessary for the rest of us to condemn these crimes. And while any crime perpetrated against any person demands condemnation, the political nature of these two cases, regardless of the specific details of the motives behind them warrants extra attention, as the country has just entered what is considered the more-or-less “official” election campaign season.
For decades, the Philippines has been beset by an increase in crime during campaign periods, and as a result has gained an unwelcome though not undeserved reputation as a particularly violent place when elections are on the calendar. The juxtaposition of an energetic democracy with widespread criminal impunity of a level one would expect to see in an utterly failed state is frankly baffling.
The Philippines could and should be an example to the rest of the world — but specially to our region—of how democracy can be successfully practiced in an emerging economy, particularly now. Both Thailand and Myanmar will be holding elections this year, and are already being viewed with some skepticism due to various “irregularities” and growing violence. Having our regional peers also carrying out elections presents the Philippines with a bit of a dilemma: if either or both of them are able to carry out elections successfully, without widespread problems and particularly without election-related violence, our failure to do the same will be all the more glaring. If their elections are chaotic and ours is as well, the Philippines will be looked at as “just another third-world country” in a dysfunctional region.
If, on the other hand, we can put a stop to election-related crime and mayhem, the Philippines will either serve as a good example and be regarded as a more stable part of the Asean – if elections in Thailand and Myanmar go poorly – or at the least, if our neighbors’ election go well, properly join our peers in showing the world that Southeast Asia is a capable, promising region. The choice, we believe, is obvious.