Philippines’ Aquino demonstrates selective political will

Some weeks ago, the body of Esmail Amil Enog was found. The corpse had been chopped to pieces and then thrown together in a sack. Enog was a witness in a grisly massacre in November 2009, which took the lives of 57 people, 32 of them journalists, on a stretch of lonely highway in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao. It was the single largest attack on journalists in the world.

Enog was a militiaman in the employ of the powerful Ampatuan clan that controlled the province. The Ampatuans are known in the Philippines as warlords–politically powerful families who maintain “private armies” and rule over their towns or provinces with an iron fist.

Six members of the clan are currently on trial for their alleged complicity in the massacre. Last July, Enog testified in a Manila court that he had driven the clan’s armed followers to the place where, other witnesses said, they stopped a convoy of unarmed civilians, shot them point-blank, and then buried their bodies with a backhoe.

News of Enog’s murder came in the same week that the Philippine Senate convicted the chief justice of the Supreme Court for failure to disclose his assets, including millions of dollars in undeclared bank accounts. The conviction was hailed as a triumph for Philippine justice and a demonstration that in a country where impunity reigns, the powerful can sometimes be held to account. It was also seen as a political victory for President Benigno Aquino III, who had been elected to office on a promise to clean up government. Aquino and his party had instigated the impeachment proceedings against the chief justice, whom they see as an obstacle to cleaning up government.

But the murder of an unknown militiaman shows how fragile this victory is. In many parts of the country, powerful clans like the Ampatuans make a mockery of the rule of law. Enog, after all, was the third witness in the case to be killed. Meanwhile, the lawsuits against the Ampatuans are lost in the labyrinth of the Philippine justice system, and some fear that the victims may never get justice at all.

President Aquino has so far shown tremendous political will in stamping out corruption and in taking on high officials accused of malfeasance. Filipinos have shown strong support for Aquino and hailed his steadfastness in ridding the government of grafters. Citizens have been outraged by the sins of the chief justice, but they have unfortunately been blasé about yet another killing in a part of the country that has seen too many murders.

But President Aquino should beware. If the Ampatuan cases are not tried freely and fairly, he will be remembered not just as the graft-buster that he is, but also as the president who stood by as the perpetrators of the most gruesome massacre in recent Philippine history ­got away.