SHARIFF AGUAK– Today and for the next 20-plus days, our team of eight will be known as ABS-CBN Maguindanao. Not a new regional station, but the mobile live point for Halalan 2010.
The days get progressively hotter here, much like in Manila. Only, fresh winds often blow to relief, the scenes mostly offer green fields and coconut trees and, yes, it rains.
Thatched huts dot the paved highway we travelled through yesterday from Cotabato airport to our lodgings in the next province. The monotony breaks with bigger crowds and structures at the town centers–all still very provincial.
At every kilometer a brightly-colored mosque stands out from the houses. At each town, soldiers, checkpoints, and a military camp. And all over the road hang tarps of the now in/famous names in running.
We hear no noise, except for the frequent roar of passing vehicles and the periodic Muslim call to prayer. No gunshots–at least for now.
Still, we’re not taking chances. We have to ride here two hours from Koronadal, South Cotabato when we go live, then go back for the night. Our drivers only stop over at “safe”places, often those with an army presence.
No question many eyes are on Maguindanao this May. A hotspot, it is one of the poorest in country, and plagued with vote-rigging. It is the setting of the worst election and media-related crime in our history, yet the perpetrators yet to be brought to justice.
This province is a study of the ills of our country–rich in resources, yet disparate in distribution; devout in religion, yet ailing with violence and corruption.
Where our reporter Jorge Cariño went live today is an example.
The Ampatuans are gone from the sprawling provincial capitol compound here. Familiar to the public eye after the Maguindanao massacre and martial law, soldiers from the 45th infantry battalion now man its buildings.
The wide courtyard and facilities–which I have yet to enter–testify to the power amassed by the few families that rule the province and even have towns named after them.
Half a kilometer away are the family’s mansions surrounded by high gates. Contrast these virtual palaces to those across the street from them–all huts.