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maguindanao – the wealthy ampatuans rule over squalor and poverty

we are printing in full here this article, it  says maguindanao is the 2nd poorest province in the country and yet the ampatuans, their family members controlling practically all of maguindabao live in wealth and comfort.

Wealthy Ampatuans rule over squalor
By Cecil Morella
Agence France-Presse
First Posted 14:51:00 12/06/2009

SHARIFF AGUAK— Ulambay Sinsuat was grilling fish when armed troops poured into a pair of palatial homes near her hovel and detained two of the most powerful men in the southern Philippines.

As dawn turned to day, Sinsuat watched hundreds of residents flee when they realized Maguindanao province had been placed under martial rule following an election-linked massacre of 57 people blamed on the region’s ruling clan.

The troops’ targets were the clan’s chief and provincial governor Andal Ampatuan Sr, as well as one of his sons Zaldy Ampatuan, the head of a larger Muslim autonomous area in the southern Philippines.

But Sinsuat, a 44-year-old fishmonger, did not have the luxury of fleeing the provincial capital of Shariff Aguak on Saturday, illustrating a miserable rich-poor divide that critics say the Ampatuans perpetuated in Maguindanao.

“We can’t leave because we don’t have money,” Sinsuat told AFP as flies swarmed around her grilled carp and mudfish that lay unsold in the town’s near-deserted public market.

“We live just behind Governor Zaldy’s mansion. The smoke from grilling the fish would sometimes waft into his backyard. But our house is tiny, it’s just a hut.”

The Ampatuans’ mansions, with their huge courtyards containing fleets of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, are rare monuments to wealth in Maguindanao, officially ranked the country’s second poorest province.

The province is situated on one of the most fertile river valleys in the country, but it has no signs of industry or economic activity except for tiny farm plots and small public markets.

The roads that branch off from the main national highway, where sheep and geese cross, are rutted or unpaved, even though the local government receives and is meant to disburse tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues.

The Philippines’ economic planning ministry says 63 percent of Maguindanao’s population of 711,000 are poor, with 342,000 residents earning less than one dollar a day.

The area has been ruled virtually unchallenged by the Ampatuan patriarch for nine years, and he installed many of his relatives into top provincial posts during a reign critics say was characterized by violence and fear.

Sixteen out of the 22 towns have mayors belonging to the Ampatuan clan, with lesser posts also occupied by relatives and allies.

The national government, the clan’s close allies until the November 23 massacre, now accuse it of using state funds to arm hundreds of militia members, some of whom allegedly took part in the killings.

One clan member, Andal Ampatuan Jr, has been charged with 25 counts of murder and police have filed indictment papers saying the clan leaders detained in their mansions on Saturday should also be charged.

The nation’s human rights commissioner, Leila de Lima, said the Ampatuans’ reputation as warlords was widely known well before the massacre, which was allegedly carried out to stop a rival from running for governor next year.

Raids in Maguindanao following the declaration of martial law on Friday night have uncovered a stunning array of weapons and ammunition that the government insists the Ampatuans illegally amassed.

Documents that could show the Ampatuans rigged elections may also have been uncovered.

“We dug up bandoleers (shoulder belts for bullets) and documents over there yesterday,” said Private First Class Domingo Igat, pointing to a huge Ampatuan-owned warehouse across the road from the Shariff Aguak municipal hall.

“They included voters’ registration forms, voters’ identification cards. They tried to burn them before they buried them, but not all the documents were burnt.”

The Ampatuans had been close allies of President Gloria Arroyo and members of her ruling coalition for many years.

Their support helped Arroyo win the 2004 presidential election against popular movie star Fernando Poe, amid widespread allegations of poll cheating in Maguindanao.

The Ampatuans were expelled from the coalition only in the wake of the massacre and revelations of the clan’s activities in the media.

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