Philippines massacre: Commission to take on 100 private armies

A government-appointed group began working Thursday to disband 132 militias used by politicians to intimidate rivals, after one allegedly killed 57 people in a southern Philippines massacre. Critics worry that only opposition figures' armies will be broken up.

Bullit Marquez/AP
Andal Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect in the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao, southern Philippines on Nov. 23, is escorted into the courtroom at the heavily-guarded Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila in on Tuesday.

A government-appointed special commission set out Thursday on an urgent mission: to supervise the disbandment of private armies long maintained by Philippine politicians in time for May elections, and to convince the public it is sincere in its efforts.

President Gloria Arroyo established the group after a massacre of 57 people in southern Maguindanao Province last November that was linked to one such militia.

The militia was run by the Ampatuan political clan, who were at the time members of Ms. Arroyo's ruling coalition. The Ampatuans have since been expelled. The authorities have accused the family of committing the murders in November to prevent a rival politician from running for governor of the province against them. The principal accused, a mayor named Andal Ampatuan Jr., pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday to multiple charges of murder.

Philippines Defense Secretary Norberto Gonzales says there are 132 private militias in the country with a combined strength of 10,000 men that politicians use to intimidate rivals and voters.

But critics worry that only private armies belonging to opposition politicians will be disbanded, especially since the governing party’ s candidate to replace Ms. Arroyo in May is trailing three opposition candidates in the opinion polls.

Skepticism dogs the commission

The government has appealed for public support for the commission, which is chaired by a retired judge and includes a Roman Catholic bishop, an Islamic scholar, a retired senior police officer, a retired general, a broadcaster, and a private campaigner against crime and corruption.

“This is an undertaking not just by the administration or by the commission. It is an undertaking by all of us who were affected by what happened last year in Maguindanao and wish to put an end to this type of incident once and for all,” said Gary Olivar, a spokesman for the president.

Still, public skepticism remains strong about the willingness of the government to disband the militias, which have been part of the political scene for six decades.

The commission will only make recommendations to the president, while disbandment will be up to the Army and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“If it’s a recommendatory body, I don’t know now if that’s a cheap grandstanding stunt, or a meaningful step toward addressing the problem of private armies,” says Christian Monsod, former chairman of the election authority.

“I don't think they'll find out anything new that is not already known to the PNP and military. Part of the problem is that the military and the police were involved in legitimizing private armies and groups like the Ampatuans'," he said.

Private armies a longstanding practice

Successive central governments have allowed official militias to form, and have often allowed the military and police to use them against communist or Muslim separatist groups.

Some local politicians have coopted these civilian volunteers to do their bidding, with Manila turning a blind eye.

In return, local politicians have used their influence over the electorate to ensure the election to national office of candidates that support the central government.

This was the case with the Ampatuans in Maguindano.

The police said the Ampatuans had hundreds of armed followers, many of whom belonged to an officially sanctioned militia. The police also said they had found more than 1,000 firearms – some of them government-issue – in Ampatuan caches.

Such evidence has created doubt that Arroyo has the political will to disband private armies.

“Will she do it? Or is she merely grandstanding to show her concern over the evil influence of private armies on national politics?” asked the Philippine Daily Inquirer in an editorial on Monday. “She owes a lot to private armies. She owes a lot particularly to the Ampatuan political dynasty and its private army.”

“But even before the commission buckles down to work, nothing but lack of resolve prevents the president from ordering the military and the police to get on with the task of dismantling the private armies before they create any more damage,” said the Inquirer, a consistent critic of the president.

One member of the commission, anticrime campaigner Dante Jimenez, appealed to be public to give it – and the president – a chance to prove itself.

“Once we have the recommendations and if the President approves them, then we will see that she has political will,” said Mr. Jimenez.

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