Filipino `village spies' help Army
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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.