My only exposure with firearms was when I was invited to attend a gun handling/firing class sponsored by a gun club some years ago. I was so scared with guns before that I was motivated to join a gun familiarization and safety course. I was trembling my first time to fire a .38 caliber revolver. But soon I was hitting well the target with a cal. 9mm pistol and a .45 caliber pistol. As I gained progress with my gun handling skills, soon I found myself joining my friends at the reserved force learning how to fire an M16 rifle at an outdoor range with a military instructor. I learned how to shoot with an M16 from a semi-automatic to a fully automatic.
Gun enthusiasts encouraged me to hone my skills in shooting and recruited me to become a gun club member but I politely declined the offer. A reserve officer too recruited me to join the reservist but I had no time for such activity. Actually my only motive to learn about firearm handling was to overcome my fear with guns. Even after said firearm training experiences, I have not been that enthusiastic with guns.
For self-defense I feel more secured with my running shoes, with my arnis and iron pipe, and my slingshot. Up to this day I still have a slingshot hanging in my room and a box of used bearings ready for self defense. But of course I live in a more secure environment with 24-hours roaming security guards. I am not as threatened as those who live in the south with the MILF rebels. This is not their mindset of security.
After losing their relatives and love ones when rampaging MILF rebels attacked towns and villages in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Sarangani , and Maguindanao provinces, civilians have started arming themselves. They don’t want to experience anymore a repeat of the senseless massacre of civilians, looting, and burning of houses. Civilian volunteers have started securing their villages; they don’t want to take chances. They believe that the military will not be there always to protect them. Other civilians too are arming, everybody is now buying guns for their own protection; as reported there is now a shortage of guns and ammunition in Mindanao.
The resurgence of vigilante groups
In the light of these troubles in Mindanao, vigilante groups are forming. The dreaded Ilaga in past has resurfaced. This vigilante groups claims to have a following of 10,000 members and supporters. They vow to protect Christians, Lumads, and even peace loving Muslims from the rebels. They promise to kill 10 MILF rebels for every Christian killed. Composed mainly of poor farmers, the Ilagas (rats in Hiligaynon) had been fighting moro rebels in the past during the time of Marcos.
Likewise in Zamboanga City, it has been reportedby ABS-CBN online that some “3,000 civilians are slowly gathering and forming as an armed group.” This nameless group (as it is still organizing), do not intend to kill or serve as vigilantes like the Ilaga group in Central Mindanao. They said they offer their services as “internal defense force” for the protection of communities in the city according to Zamboanga City 2nd district councilor Jaime Cabatao.. Most of the members of the group come from well-to-do families, and some are licensed gun holders.
No to vigilante groups
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed alarm about the resurfacing and forming of vigilante groups to run after the rebels and protect villages as the rise of such groups will result to anarchy and killings of civilians.
Likewise the Amnesty International in the Philippines warned of human rights violations and escalation of violence in Mindanao. Historically, according the group, the presence of vigilantes led to more civilian killings. “Forming vigilante groups may expose civilians to harassments and violations of their human rights.”
According to Dr. Aurora Parong of the Amnesty International, “Protecting civilians does not mean arming them. Security forces of the Philippine government already have that role.” Anakpawis party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano urged the government to disarm and dismantle immediately the Reform Ilaga Movement of North Cotabato as the group will only exacerbate the armed conflict in the region which may cause massive human rights abuses.
Worsen peace and order situation in the south.
On her part, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago agreed that the rise of armed civilian groups in Mindanao would worsen the peace and order situation in the south.
“If the Ilagas are going to substantiate their threats, that would certainly exacerbate the situation. But it might also prove terminal to the MILF leaders because the Ilaga are composed of Christian settlers who are determined to defend their settlements against what they look upon as marauders. They do not agree with the MILF or MNLF members that these members have the sovereign right to their homeland. They believe that it is the Ilagas who have their homeland in Mindanao because they were the original settlers there. This is basically an argument over who came there first,” she said.
As a defense minister during the martial law, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, warned that the conflict between Ilagas and Moros may be revived. However he said, if the government cannot protect the civilians, then it’s the duty of the government to provide arms to the civilians to defend themselves.
PNP is against indiscriminate arming of civilians
While the Philippine National Police will be distributing thousands of shotguns to civilians who will pass as members of police auxillary units as per announcement of Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, the police will not allow indiscriminate arming of civilians.
As explained by the PNP, police auxiliary units will be “community-based and will not be allowed to enter other villages.” Each auxiliary unit in the community will also be under full supervision by the local police units.
“Vigilantes and the indiscriminate arming of civilians are not allowed,” PNP chief Avelino Razon said in an interview over DZMM. He also reminded the Ilaga members to get authorization first from the local police before they could carry firearms. He warns the Ilaga members that they could be arrested for carrying firearms without authorization.
The PNP chief expressed also concern that the revival of vigilante groups would only worsen the peace and order situation in Mindanao. Similarly, this is the reason why the police auxiliary group was organized instead.
Armed vigilante groups and the 2010 presidential election
Some observers also fear that the current trouble in Mindanao shall be taken advantage of by rogue politicians to form their armed group in the guise of defending their community to harass electorates for the 2010 presidential election. While there is no hard evidence as of now linking the formation of armed groups and the way the 2010 presidential election shall take place, there had been cases in the past where said groups had been used by the politicians to eliminate their political opponents and harass voters for their advantage. Will these be the scenario a few more months from now?
As these armed groups will number by the tens of thousands, how capable will the police and the military to control and restrain their activities should they (the vigilantes) decide to ignore the law and take the same on their hands? Will this create more troubles than sense of security as the police and the military will be facing two different fronts, the rebels and the vigilantes? Should the government decide to weed out the vigilantes this early, what assurance can the government give to secure the civilians in the villages so there will be no repeat of what happened some weeks ago?
I for one, like thousands of peace loving citizens, believe that only the police and the military should possess firearms for the protection of the citizens no other else. But while it is so that the police and the military have the tactical and logistical advantage over the rebels, they are that they can pounce on them anytime, they also have their lapses operational blunders. Until such time that the public will be assured of security and guaranteed full protection from the government, the proliferation of armed groups can never be abated.
Till then the real impediments to peace and progress in Mindanao remain unresolved by the administration (socially, politically, and economically), no arms shall be surrendered, no vigilante group shall be dismantled, and the MILF shall continue to bring head ache to our leaders in the government. And what about the scenario when government shall lose control in the armed conflict involving various forces, will people experience the worse of widespread famine and diseases since they can no longer go back to their homes, cultivate their farms, and live a normal life? .