The making of a civil war in Mindanao

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes has announced the recruitment of ten thousand new members into the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU).  Seven thousand of these, he said, are to be deployed in Mindanao starting August to fight the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).   They will be responsible for protecting the communities liberated from MILF control.

From the start, the AFP knew that its regular units could not stay in Mindanao forever.  The question then is how to maintain peace without committing nearly the entire armed forces permanently to Mindanao.  While the MILF camps may have been destroyed, the MILF forces appear to be intact.  They have kept their arms.  They are expected to shift to guerilla warfare, launching sporadic attacks on the enemy while seeking refuge in civilian communities.  The latest report is that they have moved into the Davao del Sur area at the foot of Mt. Apo, after forging a tactical alliance with communist rebels operating there.  This does not look like a prelude to surrender.

The standard response of the government to a situation like this has been to create paramilitary units.  The notorious “civilian guards” of the ‘50s, the Barrio Self-Defense Units (BSDUs) of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the Integrated Civilian Home Defense Forces (ICHDFs) of the ‘80s are the forerunners of today’s Cafgus.  The mere mention of these names triggers unspeakable memories of human rights violations committed in the name of counter-insurgency. Images of the “Monkees” of Central Luzon, the “Alsa Masa” of Davao, and the “Ilaga” of Mindanao flash in the minds of ordinary citizens who lived through the terror of those years.  Who can forget the savagery of bizarre cultist groups like the “Tadtad”, and gang leaders like Norberto Manero alias Commander Bucay, that the military formed as insulation between them and the communities they were supposed to protect?

Gen. Reyes argues that the Cafgus of today must not be judged on the basis of the disreputable record of past paramilitary units.  The new ones are better trained and they will be under the clear command of professional military officers, he says.  These are hollow assurances.  There is nothing in the sociology of paramilitary groups anywhere in the world that gives us any reason to hope that the legendary abuses associated with irregular armed groups will not be repeated in Mindanao.  The framers of the 1987 Constitution were so certain about the social costs of maintaining paramilitary forces that they explicitly ordered the disbanding of these groups.

Section 24 of the Transitory Provisions is forthright in its views about paramilitary forces:  “Private armies and other armed groups not recognized by duly constituted authority shall be dismantled.  All paramilitary forces including the Civilian Home Defense Forces not consistent with the citizen armed force established in this Constitution shall be dissolved or, where appropriate, converted into the regular force.”

The government argues that the new militia groups fall under the concept of the “citizen armed force” provided by the Constitution.  Do they?  Human rights advocates must challenge the legality of the Cafgus before the Supreme Court.  Section 4 of the General Provisions states: “The Armed Forces of the Philippines shall be composed of a citizen armed force which shall undergo military training and serve, as may be provided by law.  It shall keep a regular force necessary for the security of the State.”  What is the dividing line between a paramilitary force and a citizen armed force?  Must we wait for the violations to unfold before we realize we are creating a monster?

It was not very long ago when entire private armies under the control of warlords were converted overnight into civilian home defense forces.  Newly-armed militiamen augmented their meager wages by hiring themselves out as private bodyguards to local businessmen and landowners.  They used their arms and their insignia to extort protection money from helpless civilians.  In the remote villages untouched by the authority of local government units, paramilitary bands were the law.  Neither the military nor the police took responsibility for their actions.  The military and the police used them precisely to undertake illegal operations.

The religious element in the Mindanao conflict complicates the problem of using militia.  The new Cafgus will almost certainly be drawn from the ranks of Christians.  Their creation will be synonymous to arming Christian communities against Muslim insurgents, since it is unlikely that the military will have an easy time finding and arming Muslim residents it can trust to fight fellow Muslims.  The resulting over-polarization will transform the conflict exactly into the religious civil war we all want to avoid. In such a war, the most militant anti-Moro fighters will come from the ranks of fanatical Christian cults.  This is the most terrifying consequence that the massive deployment of Cafgus to Mindanao will produce.

The government says that the MILF forces have been reduced to not more than 5000 men.  In contrast, without counting the regular forces of the AFP, there are already 24,000 Cafgus operating in Mindanao. The infusion of 7000 more will bring the number to 31,000, or a ratio of 6 militiamen to every Muslim insurgent.  Is this a war against the MILF or against the people of Mindanao?

The Cafgus will not bring peace to Mindanao.  They are the harbingers of a painful civil war.


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