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Last Updated: 12/04/2009
The Philippine politics: Guns, goons, gold and the war on terror
David Gorman

David Gorman responds to the recent violence in Mindanao, Philippines, calling attention to the political context that has allowed for and encouraged clan violence and civilian militias, as well as efforts by Sulu politicians and international organizations, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue to reduce armed violence in the political process. This article was originally published as an oped in the Jakarta Post.

The brutal slaying of almost 60 unarmed civilians, including women, children and journalists in Mindanao, Southern Philippines in the last week of November, is a stark reminder that violence is endemic to this troubled region and that Islamic extremism isn’t the only cause.

In a planned operation, the victims were systematically executed by one clan’s henchman bent on sending a message to a rival clan competing against it in local elections. Sadly, while the scale of the brutality may have been unprecedented, the killings were not unpredictable.

Despite the country’s vibrant democratic system, across the Philippines most provincial political leaders employ licensed armed individuals for protection and in some cases intimidation of their rivals. It’s said that to win an election in the Philippines, one needs the three ‘G’s: guns, goons and gold.

In Mindanao, however, levels of armed violence have reached an intolerable level. For decades, the national government has tolerated, legitimized, or in some cases even supported through the provision of arms and legal cover, efforts by indigenous clans to arm themselves in Mindanao.

National politicians tolerated or supported armed civilian militias so long as the clans were able to secure votes in their favour come national elections.

While the creation of armed civilian militias in Mindanao was often done under the guise of assisting in the War on Terror, combating separatists or serving as “force multipliers”, in reality these armed groups, which now number in the thousands, were more often than not employed against rival clans.

Without a question most violence in Mindanao is caused by clan violence rather by terrorists or separatists.

Unfortunately, the system has been allowed to flourish so widely that it is has now become nearly impossible for anyone to reasonably compete for political power without the support of an armed group.

Too often focused on the war on the terror it has overlooked the fact that violent clan politics is the principle contributor to poverty, marginalization and insecurity.

The unarmed convoy of the Mangudadatu clan slaughtered in late November attests to that. Sadly, those that try to change the system often find themselves without support and drawn back into politics by the gun.

In 2007, the Provincial Council of Sulu passed a resolution disbanding private armed groups and banning the carrying of firearms.

The measure was hailed locally and internationally and the Sulu Governor made it his personal mission to implement it. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which has been working in Sulu since 2005, lent its support by establishing a multi-stakeholder project known as the Armed Violence Reduction Initiative.

Unfortunately, this laudable initiative was undermined by a series of high profile kidnappings, an assassination attempt on the Governor by a rival clan and stepped up attacks by the terrorist listed Abu Sayyaf.

Despite pleas and protests by civil society groups and even some in the ranks of the military and the police, the national government authorized the creation of an 1,800 strong armed group known euphemistically as a Civilian Volunteer Organization.

Everyone knows, however, that this is the Governor’s personal army. Not surprisingly, his chief rival in the upcoming gubernatorial elections, has also sought legalization of a 1,400 strong armed force.

The local police and the military are often unable to prevent their creation as political gain trumps law and order.

As the Philippines approaches one its more important national elections in recent memory, presidential candidates, all of whom are calling for “change” and have condemned the massacre, need to convey precisely how they plan to ensure this level of violence does not occur again.

This will involve some tough choices. For starters the candidates should pledge the following:

·         Launch an inquiry not just into the massacre but into the role, value, lines of command and unaccountability of all armed groups outside of the police and the military.

·         Suspend the operations and licenses of all armed groups currently supported by the military, the police and the local government until the elections are complete.

·         Develop a longer term plan for the eventual phasing out of private armed groups complemented by the development and improvement of the regular armed forces and the police.

·     Enforce the current election gun ban and suspend all candidates whose supporters violate it.

Without question, the real cause of insecurity, underdevelopment and fodder for terrorists and criminals in Mindanao has been the system of violent clan rule that has been tolerated and supported for too long in the interests of political expediency.

The real question now is, who is the dog and who is the tail. Can the national government in fact reign in some of these groups? Will the culprits be brought to trial, convicted, sentenced and serve out their terms? Nonetheless, perhaps most disappointing is the international community’s own failure.

Too often focused on the war on the terror it has overlooked the fact that violent clan politics is the principle contributor to the cycle of poverty, marginalization, and insecurity that has created a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and separatists.

It has also failed to support the efforts of those political clans or even members of some notoriously violent political clans who have tried to move beyond the politics of guns, goons and gold.

David Gorman is Philippines representative of the Centre For Humanitarian Dialogue based in Manila.