State power and the Cafgu mind

Armed only with a bolo, a small man charges in the direction of automatic gunfire.  The momentum of his gallop carries him forward; for a while he seems immortal.  The camera follows him through this act of folly until he stumbles and lands on his face.  His head jerks a few times as bullets find their mark on his now immobilized figure. Someone runs to his side but the non-stop firing also cuts him down.

The man with the bolo is later identified as the leader of a Christian vigilante cult, one of the many folk religious groups that have surfaced in the wake of the armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao.  A posse of soldiers, police officers, and Cafgu militiamen have come to arrest him on a charge of frustrated homicide.  He confronts the lawmen, a cigarette in his lips and his hand ready for his sword.  He is unfazed, so a hail of bullets is unleashed to teach him a lesson.

This footage, repeatedly shown on television, will forever haunt our national memory.  It will stand as a grim symbol for all those occasions when an unthinking state mindlessly used the full force at its command to murder its own citizens.  It will tell us of those tragic times when government failed to comprehend the despair of its people, and chose instead to match impulse with impulse.  It will hopefully remind us too of the need to have leaders and lawenforcers who have the wisdom to know when and how to use the power in their hands.

For the state is above all defined by its monopoly of the means of violence. In their daily lives, citizens are fundamentally defenseless before the coercive power that is concentrated in the hands of the state.  That is why the Bill of Rights occupies a prominent place in the pages of every democratic constitution. These rights are the only weapons that a citizen may use against an abusive state.  Yet they amount to nothing when those who act in the name of the state — because of arrogance or ignorance or both – are unable to restrain themselves.

The massacre of the 16 members of the Bukidnon Catholic God’s Spirit calls to mind the mass murder of the Lapiang Malaya cult that in the late 1960s swooped down on Manila to demand the resignation of President Marcos.  But in a real sense, such massacres are hatched in the same brain as the burning of Jolo by the Marcos military in the early ‘70s and the all-out war launched by President Estrada this year against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).   We see here the same pattern of deployment of inordinate military might to subdue a poorly armed enemy, the same impatience for dialogue, the same righteous arrogance, the same itching to show who is the boss.  The Cafgu mentality is not a monopoly of the uneducated and ill-trained rural militia who assert their manhood through the barrel of their guns. It is found in equal measure in Malacanang, where it can be far more lethal because of the tremendous power at its disposal.

The emblematic Cafgu is of course the notorious Norberto Manero also known as Commander Bucay.  It was he who blasted the head of the Italian priest Tulio Favali, scooped out his brain and ate it. Feasting on roasted pork and beer inside a captured Islamic camp is not so different; it is the figurative equivalent of the same triumphal contempt for a defeated foe.  What these two actions have in common is the reckless disrespect for life and the profound disregard for human decency.

I dread to think what will happen to Sulu and Basilan once the Abu Sayyaf releases all its foreign hostages.  This group has managed to expose the Estrada government to national and global ridicule.  It has kept the armed might of the state at bay while its leaders skillfully negotiate the ransom to be paid for the hostages.  Despite the government’s avowed policy against paying ransom, the Abu Sayyaf has been able to extract the biggest ransom payment in the history of kidnapping in this country.  It has managed to recruit new members and buy new weapons, and perhaps most importantly, it has shown young Moros the only way to fight a bully.

One can imagine how the dogs of war are presently straining at their leash.  They have been humiliated and have waited long to show what they can do to local lawbreakers.  By the time the retaliatory manhunt begins, every village that is perceived to have given comfort and aid to the Abu Sayyaf will have been marked.  Every person who is perceived to have profited from the ransom money will have been identified.  Every relative and every suspected sympathizer of the Abu Sayyaf will have been placed under surveillance. The military and the Cafgu will burn entire communities to flush out the rats.  The guilty will escape, but the innocent will be left behind to bear the brunt of military wrath. Sulu will be a howling wilderness once again.

Some Moro youth may quietly cheer and take inspiration from the example of Abu Sayyaf brazenness.  But as there is nothing heroic about abducting innocent people, the rest of the Filipino people will entertain no sympathies for these bandits.  They will surely take the side of government once the offensive against the Abu Sayyaf is begun.

They have already rewarded Estrada with high approval ratings for the capture of the MILF camps.  They will close their eyes even more to the collateral damage that may result from the war against the Abu Sayyaf.  When that happens, it will be totally impossible to educate the Cafgu mind that now decides government policy for Mindanao.


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