From a mere peace and order concern of the Philippine National Police (PNP), the rapid proliferation of private armed groups (PAGs) in the Philippines has become a serious national security problem of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The Department of National Defense (DND) just declared PAGs as one of the greatest concerns to country’s defense and security along with local communist movements and Muslim secessionist movements.
According to the Independent Commission Against Private Armies (ICAPA), formed in the aftermath of the 23 November 2009 massacre of 57 persons in the Maguindanao province of the Southern Philippines, 112 PAGs are identified all over the country. Most of these PAGs are found in the Muslim areas of Mindanao. But the ICAPA does not specify how many.
The ICAPA figure on PAGs is highly conservative. In the Philippines, it is customary for local government officials to have two or more private armed bodyguards. If the Philippines has 79 provinces, 118 cities and 1,495 municipalities, not to mention 287 members of the Philippine House of Representatives, the true number of PAGs in the Philippines could be truly huge. In Maguindanao province alone, almost all of its 36 municipalities have two or more armed groups. In Sulo and Basilan, there is a saying that each household has a gun. This is a very telling indicator of how big the problem of private armed violence in the Philippines really is.
The ICAPA says that some private armies in the Philippines are organized and funded by the government to fight crime and insurgencies. This makes the definition of private armies in the Philippines highly problematic. If some PAGS are government-organized, are they really private armies?
If the 112 PAGs identified by ICAPA refer to the illegally armed private groups maintained by traditional warlords without the sanction of the government, how can they be dismantled if they serve elected officials? Moreover, how can the police and the military run after PAGs, if many of them have more resources and stronger fire powers than local law enforcement?
The problem of private armed violence in the Philippines has indeed become a security threat because it exacerbates already existing security threats from a shifting network of local communist and Moro secessionist insurgencies. When they are not fighting each other for political and personal reasons, they are likely as not conniving with each other to commit crimes such as arms smuggling, drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnap-for-ransom for financial reasons.
From a human security perspective, private armed violence threatens the welfare of local populations, as was the case in the November 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 57 people were killed including the wife, sister, and aids of opposition candidate Esmael Mangudadatu, several innocent by-standers, and at least 34 journalists. PAGs also perpetuate the practice of settling private problems and local disputes through the use of armed confrontation. This practice aggravates an already weak rule-of-law, creates semi-anarchy in the community, and undermines human rights by creating a politics of fear and intimidation in the day-to-day lives of many people in the Philippines. This situation is a vicious circle – the PAGs are, in part, a response to weak central government services in many under-developed localities, but the atmosphere of fear they create discourages the very foreign and local entrepreneurs from investing in the areas where they are needed most in order to propel local economic development, create jobs and reduce poverty. In the view of such potential investors, the high cost for personal and infrastructure security far outbalances any potential profit.
Private armed violence exists because of a weak state that fails to insulate itself from the parochial interests of clans and families maintaining their own private armies. PAGs proliferate because some corrupt key military, police and elected government officials are beholden to local warlords. The result has been the evolution of a complex network that will be extremely difficult to dismantle in a society torn by complex internal armed conflicts.
Identifying and addressing the underlying causes and conditions of internal armed conflicts in the Philippines is a key first step to deal with private armed violence in the Philippines. In a weak state, the task is truly gargantuan but doable and must be tackled. The urgent task is to seriously pursue security sector reform – a task easier said than done but one that must be undertaken.
(This article was originally published at Asian Conflicts Report, July 2010)