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NEWS UPDATES 3 July 2010

Private armies abound in Philippines

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The Philippines may have a new president but more than a hundred “private armies” still dominate local politics, using force and even murder to keep their masters in power, security experts warn. It is a problem that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has vowed to resolve but it has persisted for decades, fed by poverty and entrenched political dynasties, and few people believe that private armies will be eliminated soon.

“Private armies thrive where there are powerful politicians and local kingpins who make local communities that are . . . untouched by national authority, their own private political domains,” the Independent Commission against Private Armies (ICAPA) said.

These “armies” may include soldiers, policemen, civilian volunteers, jail guards, communist or separatist guerrillas, security guards, armed cult groups and street thugs.

But the common denominator is that they work for influential politicians who use them to violently enforce their will in villages, towns and even cities, the commission warned in a report released recently.

The commission was created to study the phenomenon of private armies in the wake of the massacre of 57 people on Nov. 23, 2009 in the restive southern province of Maguindanao, allegedly by the area’s then-ruling clan’s private army.

Killings by such private armies may not be an isolated event, according to the commission’s six-month-long study.

The Philippine National Police, in a report to ICAPA, said that it had confirmed the existence of 112 private armies scattered across the country, some with as few as four members but others with hundreds.

Most alarmingly, many members of the private armies are armed and paid by the national government, supposedly for law-enforcement or counter-insurgency purposes, several witnesses told the commission.

These “volunteer groups” or “auxiliary” units are set up for legal objectives such as anti-drug campaigns or even traffic control, commission member Edilberto Adan told Agence France-Presse.

“But in reality, it turns out they are used for partisan activities by the local government that created them,” said Adan, a former military general.

This can include government militiamen—part-time soldiers supposedly under military control—who are supposed to defend their communities from communist or Muslim insurgents and bandits.

But such militiamen sometimes end up as enforcers of the local kingpin who supplements their meager P2,700 monthly allowance, Adan said.

Even regular soldiers and policemen can be recruited into private armies through money or political favors, the commission found.

The commission pointed to other deep-rooted problems behind the private-army phenomenon.

Gun culture

It cited the country’s flourishing gun culture, the widespread disregard for the law in settling disputes and the continued existence of a brand of feudalism where many poor people find themselves relying on a few powerful men.

President Aquino, who was sworn in as the country’s new on Wednesday, said in the election campaign that “our security forces must be directed to dismantle all private armies”.

Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, also told Agence France-Presse this meant the military and police would take back control of militia and auxiliary forces from the politicians.

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