The creation of a special commission to investigate the existence of private armed groups, and to recommend ways of dismantling them, would be nothing short of revolutionary, if the commission were to seriously do its work. Basic information alone on these private armies – for example, who maintains them, how long they have been in existence, how big they are, what kind of firearms they have, the personal backgrounds of their members, where they operate, etc. – could be so revealing as to explode all our illusions about Philippine democracy.
For all its brutality and barbarism — and the personal tragedies it brought to many families, notably of the media people who were used as human shields – the Nov. 23 Maguindanao massacre gives us a rare opportunity to ask questions about the nature of our political order, and why it has remained incapable of protecting our people from lawless violence. If only because of this, the senseless deaths of 57 unarmed civilians would not be in vain.
At the outset, the commission’s work will be hampered not by lack of information, but by the enormous power and influence of those who keep private armed groups. The police and the military know who they are. They have a rough estimate of how many such groups exist – 170, according to one report (102 in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, and 68 in the rest of the country). The key sociological question is: why has the state tolerated and, at times, subsidized their existence?
I suspect that the figures cited cover a wide range of armed groups – communist rebels, Islamic rebels, “lost commands”, kidnap-forransom and other criminal syndicates, bodyguards of politicians and businessmen, “civilian volunteer organizations” and other paramilitary units set up to help fight terrorist groups, etc. The list could be so mixed as to be useless. I believe the investigation must focus on armed groups associated with politicians, especially those with large properties and businesses. Then it may see for itself how all the other groups fall into place under our feudal political order.
The definition of a “private armed group” will be the first contentious issue. Many of those that precisely need to be dismantled will seek exemption from the scope of the commission’s investigation. We may anticipate the lines of possible exemption by simply deconstructing the object of the hunt – “private armed group.” What is “private”? What is “armed”? And what constitutes a “group”?
We only need to take a look at the situation in Maguindanao to appreciate the complex issues that will confront the commission. As public officials, the Ampatuans were clever enough not to use their own money to pay for the upkeep of their armed groups. Most of these security personnel were “civilian volunteers” who drew their salaries from public funds. A number of them were, in fact, regular policemen on special assignment. They were government employees, even if their services were privately appropriated. The Ampatuans can always claim that these men were securing them in their roles as public officials, rather than as private persons. Not that it makes any difference, however. It is not uncommon for influential private individuals to enjoy police security on an almost permanent basis at government expense. This is how blurred the lines between public and private are in our society.
What does it mean to be “armed”? Surely the directive does not include all armed individuals. Nor does it cover the private security agencies that have sprouted nationwide in just the past 20 years. While it may be easy to distinguish the legitimate professional security agencies from those used as covers for private armies, it will not be as easy to tell the difference between an “army” and an armed staff. How will the commission treat drivers and personal assistants who double as bodyguards and, as part of their work, happen to be armed? But one can imagine how an army can be assembled from a pool of personal bodyguards. If there is one driver and one personal assistant for every member of an extended family or a political clan, the number can easily attain the critical mass of an armed group.
This brings up the question: what is a “group”?
A group is not just any loose collection of individuals; a group would have an authority structure, some rules, and a set of regular activities that constitute the roles of members. The number of people involved is not the crucial element. The crucial factor is the objective purpose for maintaining the armed group. As I understand it, the commission’s mandate is to go after those groups that are routinely deployed not just for self-defense or protection of property, but, more significantly, as an integral instrument of their owners’ political power or economic strategy.
There is logic to this: no state worth its name can afford to share its power with warlords. “If within the state,” said the political theorist Carl Schmitt, “there are organized parties capable of according their members more protection than the state, then the latter becomes at best an annex of such parties, and the individual citizen knows whom he has to obey.” In Maguindanao and almost everywhere in our society, the ordinary citizen bows to the warlord, the boss, the patron, the datu – the one who takes care of his needs and protects him. Do we wonder why we have a weak state? We may learn from Schmitt’s conclusion: “The protego ergo obligo (“I protect therefore I oblige”) is the cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) of the state.”