Permit to campaign

Bizarre as it is, politicians running for local positions have come to accept it as part of the political reality: that in some remote Philippine communities, candidates must secure a clearance from armed illegal groups before they can enter an area and campaign. The permit to campaign is normally given in exchange for a cash “contribution” to the kilusan (movement), a cryptic reference to the armed struggle led by the Communist Party and the New People’s Army (NPA).

Some of these groups may, in fact, be no more than extortionist gangs posing as revolutionaries.  But many, like those who recently attacked Gingoog Mayor Ruth Guingona and her companions, identify themselves as NPA guerillas.  They take pains to explain their actions, and sometimes apologize in the name of the movement.

Their premise is that the communities in question are red zones under rebel control and protection.  They are nominally part of the Philippine state, but, in practice, they live under the parallel authority of a revolutionary government that has the power to regulate the flow of people, goods, and weapons in these areas. The checkpoint is the figurative embodiment of this authority. It stands for the power to stop, to inspect, and, if needed, to confiscate arms and detain people.

In modern society, such authority belongs only to one entity—the state.  “Force is a means specific to the state,” famously wrote Max Weber.  The state is the only entity that can claim “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”  Outside the state, the employment of physical force to enforce any rule can only be classified as violence.  This is the point that Sen. TG Guingona, the mayor’s son, was making when he said that he recognizes only one government in this country, the one presently led by President Aquino.

It is perhaps a testimony to the incomplete nature of our statehood that a number of armed groups not authorized by the state continue to operate with impunity in our country.  A number of these are ideological armies that have battled the forces of the Philippine state for decades, while many are plain criminal groups and private armies operating in the shadow of the state.

State engagement with this broad range of illegal armed groups in the country has been a complex affair.  Few administrations have dared to launch a sustained and comprehensive war to crush them. The consequences of such a campaign, particularly for innocent communities and civilians caught in the crossfire, are forbidding.  Recognizing that these struggles often represent legitimate grievances, peace advocates have counseled dialogue and negotiation as the more humane approach to ending these conflicts.

Even as they remain outside the margins of official society, these underground groups project ideals that other activists and even mainstream politicians can easily identify with.  The nationalist aspirations enshrined in the Constitution are a case in point, as are the norms pertaining to human rights and social justice.  These issues have historically brought Filipino rebels, activists, and politicians together under a common banner.

Among the progressive political leaders still active today, no one probably knows this better than former Vice President Teofisto “Tito” Guingona Jr.  Both in the parliament of the streets as well as in the corridors of government, Tito lent his eloquence and passion to countless causes that the more timid among his colleagues would have found subversive.  He never hesitated to champion these causes and lead people’s organizations even when he seemed to be only the figurehead.

But maybe the younger revolutionaries in the field no longer recognize this. For, if they did, they would be more deferential in their treatment of the Guingonas.  Mrs Guingona certainly does not deserve to be threatened or harmed by the bullets of revolutionary violence. At 78, not only is she an elderly public servant who is ending her last term as town mayor, she also happens to be the wife of a patriot who has spent his entire life championing all the causes for which they themselves are fighting.

What did they think they hoped to accomplish by shooting and lobbing grenades at the mayor’s car after she failed to stop and honor their checkpoint?  Did they mean to show up the emptiness of her authority as mayor of this small town?  Did they mean to punish her for ignoring their warning that she must get a permit before she can enter an outlying barangay within her own municipality?

In a statement, Allan Juanito, the spokesman of the NPA North Central Mindanao Regional Command, said: “We are deeply saddened by this unfortunate incident.  We take responsibility for this.”  He said they fired in self-defense and didn’t mean for the deadly encounter to happen. He added: “We wish to reiterate our warning to all candidates who are campaigning in guerilla zones to avoid carrying firearms or armed escorts to avoid the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.”  There’s no mention of the permit-to-campaign fee, but it is obvious that that is what this is about.

People who don’t know Tito Guingona may not understand his restrained reaction after he learned that the NPA had shot and wounded his 78-year-old wife, and killed her driver and bodyguard. “My heart is sorrowful and I am saddened very much by what happened,” he said.  “I thank God that my wife was able to survive.”  No harsh words for the NPA guerillas who almost killed his wife.  Clearly, he grieves for a revolutionary movement that once held so much promise but now appears to have lost its way.