Philippines: Mindanao civilians take up arms

News and Press Release
Originally published
ALEOSAN, 20 November 2008 (IRIN) - Loreto Cabaya, mayor of the southern town of Aleosan, an agricultural Christian community of several thousand families in North Cotabato Province, supports arming civilians.

Since August, his town has witnessed increased activity by the separatist Moro Islamic Front (MILF), a 12,000-strong group that has stepped up attacks against civilian and government targets across southern Mindanao island.

Nearly 7,000 troops have been dispatched to the area to help local police keep the peace, but many residents do not feel safe, especially those in hard-to-reach communities where there is virtually no local government presence, he told IRIN.

"Many are afraid of MILF attacks and you can't help it if they feel safer by arming themselves for protection," Cabaya said.

But the move also comes at an especially dangerous time in what the government describes as a "complex emergency".

Local officials are also tolerating the presence of a Christian militia group, the Ilaga, which has recently resurfaced after 20 years of inactivity to thwart MILF attacks.

In the 1970s and 1980s the group fought alongside the government in a bloody anti-insurgency campaign. The Ilaga ("rats") became known for their ferocity in battles against Muslim fighters trying to push the Christians out of Mindanao.

Truce elusive

Peace negotiations between the MILF and government broke down when two guerrilla leaders attacked several towns and province across the island, including Aleosan, in August.

The raids came after a court stopped a proposed deal that would have given the rebels control over a vast Muslim autonomous area in Mindanao. More than 500,000 people were affected at the height of the fighting in August, and while many have returned to their homes, thousands remain in evacuation camps.

Over 140 have been killed and 135 injured, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) reported on 18 November, while the rebels also torched businesses and robbed homes and farms.

Moreover, neither side has shown signs of declaring a Christmas truce.

In response, the Interior Department sent more than 1,000 shotguns to selected townships in Mindanao in September for use by civilians deputised as local sheriffs by the police, a move that could lead to more violence.

This is in addition to the estimated 60,000 unlicensed fire-arms owned by civilians in the central and southern Philippines, but excludes those owned by the rebel groups.

MILF boasts more than 20,000 firearms - including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns and rifles, as well as land mines.

Already, the Ilaga faction in Aleosan, led by Felimon Cayang, 48, has threatened their own raids against Muslim communities sympathetic to the MILF.

"For every Christian killed, we will kill 10 MILF rebels. We are prepared to die and will not let them take away our lands," Cayang promised, brandishing an M4 assault rifle he bought on the black market for about US$1,000.

Growing concern

Meanwhile, the Philippines' leading anti-gun lobbyist, Nandy Pacheco of the Gunless Society group, warns that the number of unlicensed firearms in Mindanao could rise amid renewed fighting and accuses the authorities of tacitly backing militia groups.

"Guns are not a solution to the problem. It will only encourage more violence and violence begets violence," Pacheco told IRIN.

"We now have a situation wherein a condition is created for the proliferation of unlicensed firearms. An eye for an eye or a gun for a gun is not the mark of a civilised society," he said.

"By advocating the carrying of guns by ordinary citizens, government is absolving itself of its rightful duty to apply gun control to all, including the rebels," Pacheco said, adding that the "law states that only policemen and military personnel are allowed to carry firearms".

In October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which tracks conflicts worldwide, warned the government against arming paramilitary groups.

"While the need for defence against attacks by MILF units in a place like North Cotabato is real, Philippine officials should know by now that arming poorly trained civilian forces only makes things worse," the group said in a report.

But for Cayang, a gun is a man's best friend in hostile territory. "Let them live in Mindanao, then they will realise we are right," Cayang said. "If I didn't own guns, I'd be dead by now. My family would be dead by now."