Digos, Philippines — The rifle that Ruth Magaso carries is a fake, a piece of wood carved to look like an M-16. But watch out. This determined grandmother plans to shoot it anyway. It is a ruse to fend off communist guerrillas from her isolated mountain village in the southern Philippines.
``Bang, bang,'' shouts Mrs. Magaso, who pulls her ``rifle's'' fake trigger as a stranger approaches Matutungan village.
Like thousands of peasants in Davao del Sur Province in the past six weeks, Magaso has been enlisted in a new anticommunist vigilante group.
Founded by a local military commander, ``Nakasaka,'' or People United for Peace, operates under a strict rule: Though the communist guerrillas have rifles, the vigilantes can only use homemade ``defensive'' weapons, such as sling shots, bows and arrows, sticks, knives, and fake guns.
Still, the idea has caught the fancy of President Corazon Aquino, whose religious beliefs led her to extol nonviolent methods. Government officials are trying to spread Nakasaka to other areas to act as village spies for the military and help end the Philippines' 18-year-long communist insurgency.
Magaso's vigilante duties include sitting with two other elderly ladies inside a bunker that serves as a checkpoint at the entrance to her village of about 500.
A posted sign on the bunker says there is a curfew at 6 p.m. That's when peasants start patrolling the village with their weapons, which are supposed to be used only for self-defense.
If a suspected member of the communist-led New People's Army (NPA) should come into the area, the villagers have been told to sound a special alarm. They beat a bamboo drum, signaling the military to come to the rescue. Across the village entrance, the peasants have placed a new bobbing bamboo pole, designed to halt rebels in vehicles. Signs pinned to the pole read: ``Long live democracy ... in God we trust.''
This represents quite a change from just a few months ago, when rebels ran freely through the village, trying to convert people to their cause and collecting burdensome taxes. A few years ago, NPA guerrillas came in the night and left three unidentified corpses in the village center as a warning.
``During the time of [President Ferdinand] Marcos,'' says Magaso, ``the poor people could not contact the military. The military was all-powerful. Now we have the Cory government.''
Col. Jesus Magno, commander of the provincial Police Constabulary and Nakasaka's founder, says that the vigilante group is just another example of ``people power.'' This buzzword refers to the events of February 1986, when peaceful defiance by civilians protected reformist officers who had defected, leading to Mr. Marcos's exit. The events helped to turn around the military's image, although some doubts remain as to whether the armed forces can fight guerrillas without killing civilians.
``In areas where we are losing ground to the insurgents, it is because of the support of the people. Now how about converting the masses to support the government side?'' says Colonel Magno. ``But first we have to discipline the troops. If the military is credible, anything you do, anything you say, the people believe in you.''
Magno claims that about half of the province's villages, and nearly all of the capital, Digos, now support Nakasaka. He began the movement after a nationwide 60-day cease-fire ended Feb. 8. ``Members of Nakasaka are bold enough ... to say `no' to the demands of the insurgents. This is so because of `people power,''' he says.
Rather than fight the rebels, Nakasaka members serve as spies for the military. ``All the eyes of the people who are lovers of freedom and democracy are watching the insurgents,'' Magno states.
He expects all the villages to be converted to Nakasaka within five months. This, he claims, would force the remaining 200 to 300 rebels out of the province.
Nakasaka has helped the military kill seven rebels in just six weeks, Magno says. It also led to the capture of 11,000 rounds of ammunition stored by the NPA in the hills. Magno says about five full-time guerrillas and hundreds of Communist Party workers have surrendered, yielding 49 firearms. Some surrenderees, he says, are helping to recover the remains of NPA victims.
At the same time, two peasants have been killed, presumably by the NPA for being Nakasaka members. Magno worries that if such killings continue, it might scare peasants, shattering Naksaka's unity. Some 200 families have fled their homes in the hills as a result of NPA threats against Nakasaka members.
While Magno and other military leaders push Nakasaka as a cause against a ``foreign, Godless ideology,'' the peasants themselves seem most motivated to join in order to end NPA taxes and support the popular Aquino.
When Magno addresses crowds of peasants and asks them if they want guns, wild cheers respond. He disappoints them by saying the military must fight the rebels.
Nakasaka is not the first such vigilante group to spring up since Mrs. Aquino came to power. It was preceded by ``Alsa Masa'' (Revolt of the People) in nearby Davao City, which differs in one big way. There, the provincial commander gives guns to some members of the group to ``defend'' themselves against NPA reprisals.
Charges that Alsa Masa members are killing NPA members, committing human rights abuses, forcing people to join, and collecting taxes have been made by several leftist groups.
Nakasaka also has come under attack for giving license to peasants to attack suspected rebels. ``It is a goat in sheep's clothing,'' says Digos human rights lawyer Leonardo Suario. Bows and arrows and knives are not defensive weapons, he says.
Alsa Masa has grown rapidly since January, when a Davao City radio announcer, Jun Pala, started campaigning for the group. He has become a local hero, forced to protect himself from the NPA with bodyguards.
``You should imitate the concept of the NPA,'' he says. ``They have their militia, their own informers. We adopt the same concept. We have our own mass base. We have our own militia.''
``In the Philippines, we have a scarcity of police and military. In Davao City, we have 1 million people. Our police here are only 350 people. That is not enough. The people must use guns to defend themselves. The credibilty of Cory [Aquino] has helped a lot in this kind of crusade,'' he says.
But Aquino has decided to crack down on ``private armies,'' based on a provision in the new Constitution. She has shied away from endorsing Alsa Masa. Her officials are using Nakasaka as a model.
A member of the general staff of the NPA said that Alsa Masa and Nakasaka pose a big problem for the rebels. He says the NPA is planning a counteroffensive, although he would not say what it is. He said such vigilante groups will fail because their ``ideology is groundless, and they are linked to the military.''
Magno admits he doesn't know where Nakasaka will end up. If it succeeds in driving the rebels out, he says, it could just dissolve. That might allow the NPA to build up again. But in the meantime, Magno spends nights up in the hills trying to prevent Magaso and other vigilantes from getting out of hand.