Philippines to arm civilians amid growing security threats By Girlie Linao

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Tuesday October 31, 2006

threats By Girlie Linao, Manila- Faced with escalating hostilities from communist rebels and a volatile Muslim insurgency in the south, the Philippine government is planning to recruit and arm civilians to help maintain peace and order in the country. Under the government's strategy, the armed civilian militias would become "force multipliers" in the fight against insurgency, terrorism and crimes by gathering intelligence, serving as back up to troops and conducting community patrols.

The plan brings new meaning to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's call for stronger cooperation between a vigilant public and government security forces.

"The authorities are on top of the situation, but they need the active support of the community to safeguard the perimeters of peace and order," Arroyo once said in discussing the need to tap civilians in the fight against threats to national security.

Security officials said the plan, which started in October, would help plug a deficit in the 120,000-strong military and 110,000-strong police force in the country and strengthen security in villages and towns, which suffer the most during attacks by rebels and terrorists.

But not everyone in the Philippines agrees.

Critics warned the arming of civilians could only escalate a spate of extra-judicial killings blamed on government security forces, and turn the country into "the wild, wild West."

"What does the government want to happen, that we all just take up arms and shoot each other?" a horrified Marie Hilao Enriquez, secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, asked when told of the plan.

"This only indicates a breakdown of law and order in the country," she added. "This is an admission that they cannot govern. It is very dangerous to arm civilians because these paramilitary forces would only become potential human rights violators."

Enriquez also warned that with congressional elections scheduled in May 2007, the recruitment of civilian militias could be part of an attempt by the government to manipulate the polls, which would be crucial for Arroyo to maintain control of Congress.

There were armed paramilitary forces in the Philippines in the past, particularly during the regime of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who tapped militias to fight the communist rebellion.

But the civilian auxiliary forces were disarmed after they deteriorated into vigilantes and were blamed for some of the worst human rights violations during Marcos' 20-year-rule. Some of the militias became private armies of politicians and warlords.

Brian Yamsuan, assistant secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, said the Arroyo administration was taking note of previous problems and treading carefully in implementing the plan.

"Safety nets are a primordial part of this programme," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in an interview. "We will train these volunteers that their primary role is to defend the republic, to defend their locality."

"Part of their training would be (respect for) human rights and we will try to make them apolitical," he added. "We don't want them to think that just because they were given weapons, they become goons of local politicans."

The military has already been authorized to recruit nearly 8,000 civilians who would be "trained, equipped" and formed into 90 companies as part of the plan.

The police on the other hand has been allowed to deputize village security officers, who would be armed by their local governments, to help in their operations.

The southern region of Mindanao, plagued by a communist insurgency, Islamic extremism and terrorism, is being eyed as a pilot area for the deployment of the armed civilian militias.

Government security forces are battling both communist rebels and al-Qaeda-linked Muslim militants in the strife-torn Mindanao, home to the country's Muslim minority.

Tensions between the military and the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group fighting for an independent state in Mindanao, have also been flaring up recently amid an impasse in peace talks with the government.

General Hermogenes Esperon, armed forces chief of staff, said the recruitment of militiamen would help implement Arroyo's order to wipe out the 37-year-old communist insurgency in the Philippines by 2010.

He said the civilian militias would become part of a "village defence" system that was necessary to reduce the communist rebels' current strength of 7,200 to an "inconsequential level."

"They (armed civilian volunteers) will be the stay-behind forces," he said. "They will secure their own community so the regular soldiers can move on to their next target."

For anti-crime advocate Martin Dino, who is also a village chieftain in a Manila suburban city, the government's plan to arm civilian volunteers and village security officers was long overdue.

He noted that with a government ban on civilians carrying firearms and stricter rules in acquiring gun licenses, "criminals are emboldened because they know that good citizens cannot fight back because they don't have arms."

Earlier in the month, one of Dino's village security officers - who was merely armed with a nightstick - was shot dead when he chased after a suspected robber.

"My officer would have had a chance if he had a gun," Dino said. "So I believe it is high time we give arms to civilian volunteers, but with proper training."

"Having a gun should not be a license to shoot anyone," he added. "The priority is self-defence, only use your weapon if your life is in danger while on duty. If you abuse this, you have to be punished, especially if you use your weapons for your own interests."

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency