‘Private armies’ hold Philippine politics at gunpoint
The Philippines may have a new president but more than a hundred "private armies" still dominate local politics, using force and even murder to keep their masters in power, security experts warn.
It is a problem that President Benigno Aquino has vowed to resolve but it has persisted for decades, fed by poverty and entrenched political dynasties, and few people believe private armies will be eliminated soon.
"Private armies thrive where there are powerful politicians and local kingpins who make local communities that are… untouched by national authority, their own private political domains," a government commission said.
These ‘armies’ may include soldiers, policemen, civilian volunteers, jail guards, communist or separatist guerrillas, security guards, armed cult groups and street thugs.
But the common denominator is that they work for influential politicians who use them to violently enforce their will in villages, towns and even cities, the commission warned in a report released recently.
The commission was created to study the phenomenon of private armies following the massacre of 57 people last year in the restive southern province of Maguindanao, allegedly by the area’s then-ruling clan’s private army.
Killings by such private armies may not be an isolated event, according to the commission’s six-month-long study.
The national police, in a report to the commission, said it had confirmed the existence of 112 private armies scattered across the country, some with as few as four members but others with hundreds.
Most alarmingly, many members of the private armies are armed and paid by the national government, supposedly for law-enforcement or counter-insurgency purposes, several witnesses told the commission.
These "volunteer groups" or "auxiliary" units are set up for legal objectives such as anti-drug campaigns or even traffic control, commission member Edilberto Adan told AFP.
"But in reality, it turns out they are used for partisan activities by the local government that created them," said Adan, a former general.
This can include government militiamen — part-time soldiers supposedly under military control — who are supposed to defend their communities from communist or Muslim insurgents and bandits.
But such militiamen sometimes end up as enforcers of the local kingpin who supplements their meagre 2,700-peso (58-dollar) monthly allowance, Adan said.
Even regular soldiers and policemen can be recruited into private armies through money or political favours, the commission found.
The commission pointed to other deep-rooted problems behind the private army phenomenon.
It cited the country’s flourishing gun culture, the widespread disregard for the law in settling disputes and the continued existence of a brand of feudalism where many poor people find themselves relying on a few powerful men.
Aquino, who was sworn in as president on Wednesday, said in the election campaign that "our security forces must be directed to dismantle all private armies".
Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told AFP this meant the military and police would take back control of militia and auxiliary forces from the politicians.
"He wants to make sure they will be strictly under the supervision of the armed forces and national police," Lacierda told AFP.
This was one of the recommendations of the commission.
However, groups such as Human Rights Watch have said the militia and auxiliary forces should be dismantled completely, warning they would remain a threat even if under the supposed control of the military and police.
Aquino and other officials maintain the "auxiliary units" play a vital role in providing security in the absence of enough money to pay for more regular police and army personnel.
"The armed forces need a force multiplier and since the government cannot supply the budget needed for additional regular battalions, the militiamen are the answer," Adan said.