Tension escalates in Maguindanao town

By Ali G. Macabalang

COTABATO CITY – Tension ran high in Pandag, Maguindanao del Sur on Thursday, Nov. 24 after a commotion spawned by confrontation between Governor Mariam Mangudadatu and the town’s vice mayor, Zihan Mamalinta- Mangudadatu, inside the municipal hall.

Zihan is the wife of Pandag Mayor Khadafeh “Toy” Mangudadatu, a former regional legislator, who was arrested by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) in Davao City for a double murder case on Sept. 10.

Toy was released from detention less than a week ago on bail granted by the court after the Department of Justice dismissed the raps against him and his brother, former Congressman Zajid “Dong” Mangudadatu.

Gov. Mariam’s husband, former Sultan Kudarat Governor Suharto “Teng” Mangudadatu, and Zihan’s husband are estranged second cousins.

Toy is younger brother of former Mayor Freddie Mangudadatu, who ran against Mariam in the 2019 gubernatorial election. This, after Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, eldest sibling of Toy and Freddie, completed his three-term as governor, ran and won as Congressman of the province’s second district (now comprising Maguindanao del Sur).

Toto ran under the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) of the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF) now heading momentarily the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), but lost to Mariam in the 2021 gubernatorial race.

Videos shared in traditional and social media showed a commotion on Thursday afternoon inside the office of Vice Mayor Zihan, who was sitting as acting mayor pending her husband’s formal office resumption after his two-month incarceration.

The videos showed the governor grabbing the vice mayor’s cellular phone, prompting a commotion that ostensibly left many of the unarmed followers and office subordinates of Zihan. In one of the videos, workers in the mayor’s office were heard yelling in search of the vice mayor who went missing in the brief melee.

Former Governor and Rep. Toto posted a social media message that mentioned about “hostage at pagbaril kay Vice Mayor Zihan Mangudadatu” after the commotion.

In a Rappler report, Maguindanao police director Colonel Roel Sermese quickly denied that there was a hostage-taking crisis and gunfire, saying the situation was under control.

Sermese said police elements and soldiers came and pacified the quarreling groups. But the videos showed that police and military men were with the governor before entering the mayor’s office.

Toy went live on Facebook, appealing to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Benhur Abalos to immediately intervene in the brewing town’s mayoral dispute.

“Maawa po kayo (Have pity on us),” Toy said, claiming that the group of Governor Mariam has been intimidating his family.

He said he feared for their safety in the escalating tension in Pandag which may spark “another Maguindanao massacre.”

He was referring to the November 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan town that left 58 people, including 32 media workers along with Toto Mangudadatu’s wife, sister and other relatives dead. The victims were on a convoy that was supposed to file the gubernatorial candidacy document of then Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadatu.

Last October 18, Gov. Mariam swore in Mohajeran Odjie Balayman, Toy’s rival in the Pandag mayoral race, after a regional court ruled following its votes recount that Balayman got 2,740 votes against Mangudadatu’s 2,070 in the May 9 mayoral poll in Pandag town. The recount was sought by Balayman in a post-election protest.

Toy’s camp petitioned before the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for relief. The Comelec First Division issued on October 19 an injunction prescribing for a status quo, meaning the upholding of Toy’s proclamation as the duly-elected mayor by the board of canvassers on May 10 after garnering 4,307 votes against Balayman’s 2,445 votes.

The BARMM’s Ministry of the Interior and Local Government (MILG) had awarded Toy a certificate of recognition (COR) after the canvass board’s proclamation.

When Toy was incarcerated, Vice Mayor Zihan obtained a COR from the MILG to serve as acting mayor. But the camp of Balayman and Gov. Mariam does not recognize the authority of the MILG, saying it has no supervisory authority over LGUs in BARMM.

In a recorded media interview on November 21, Balayman in the presence of Gov. Mariam said he was the one recognized by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and DILG Secretary Abalos. He has posted on Facebook photos showing himself in separate poses with the President and Sec. Abalos.

But the President and Abalos have not issued any statement of recognition for Balayman.

More than a year ago, former DILG Secretary Eduardo Año had formally transferred supervisory power over LGUs in BARMM to the MILG as prescribed under the Bangsamoro Organic Law or R.A. 11054 0 that created the new autonomous region.

In separate media interviews, MILG Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, a lawyer, said Balayman had asked for COR but he denied the request because of the Comelec first division’s injunction order. (AGM)

(Attached are photos culled from videos, showing the governor pointing a finger at the vice mayor after grabbing the latter’s mobile phone, a part of the accruing melee, and policemen and soldiers accompanying the governor watching the door of the Pandag mayor’s office door.)

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