By Brian Wivell
The Philippines finds itself at the center of a growing debate on the role of political violence in democracies. Beginning in 2001, there was a sudden unprecedented increase in the number of political assassinations in the country, with a myriad of potential suspects. This elevation of political violence raised alarms about the health of the relatively young democracy. Though the violence is largely thought to have ended after the transition of power from President Gloria MacapagalArroyo to President Benigno Aquino III, this has been continuously proven false as citizens, journalists, and politicians are routinely attacked for engaging in the political process.
The extent of systemic political violence in the Philippines has become so severe that witnesses to the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009 have been attacked as recently as November 23, 2014. Despite the complexity and dynamic nature of political violence in the Philippines, there are policy changes which could serve to decrease the likelihood of future violence. These reforms not only address the direct issue of political violence but deal with the underlying problems that may lead citizens or politicians to engage in this type of behavior.
The Philippines maintains a network of paramilitary organizations that assist in the policing of everyday life. This culture of armed paramilitaries poses problems to any entity wishing to decrease the violence. The police and army in the Philippines are supplemented with a series of local forces known as Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU). These units are comprised of irregular soldiers that are tasked with protecting their local area from insurgency. Though this idea was first strategized to combat the danger of insurgencies and their destabilizing effect, it is thought that these citizen armed forces geographical units are being used to engage in political retribution. These local militias have been charged with over 850 human rights abuses according to United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR, 2000). There have been efforts to dismantle this program but all have failed.
It is necessary to thoroughly disband all of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units and retrieve all munitions provided to them in order to maintain the rule of law in the Philippines. These government sponsored paramilitaries only serve to condone the already prevalent culture of paramilitaries and militias in the Philippines. It must be noted that CAFGU soldiers were often the victims of these summary executions and extrajudicial killings (Alston, 2008).
Beyond disbanding the citizen militias that are found throughout the Philippines, all efforts should be made to control the supply and sale of firearms. The Philippines has a strong gun culture that emphasizes firearm ownership (Aquino, 2008). That is perfectly acceptable and should be respected but laws must be put in place that track the sale of firearms and rudimentary forensics must be available to the crime fighting forces of the country.
There are over 600,000 illegal, unregistered firearms in the country and they are often hand-made in a cottage industry that can produce massive quantities at low costs. These enterprises are often the only escape from poverty that some families have. In Danao, a city well known for its firearms industry, the sale of a single handmade gun can be $133 which is above half of a minimum wage salary for a month. Guns, especially handmade firearms, are also closely associated with the Filipino struggle for independence. This only increases the cultural difficulty of removing guns from those most likely to do harm. Efforts are already underway to help bring these gunsmiths out of from the black market and under the oversight of the law. Over 900 gunsmith operations have expressed interest in being recognized by the government (Ibid.). This represents incredible progress; once these businesses are recognized by the government they may stamp their guns with a serial number and can be traced. This will severely restrict the flow of guns and munitions to the armed insurgencies of the Philippines. Not all violence can be curbed simply through choking the future supply of weapons to insurgents. It is also necessary to make sure that the law prevents violence with existing supplies of weaponry.
Much of the political violence in the Philippines occurs around election season. The most infamous is the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009. In order to prevent future electoral atrocities, the government has implemented a gun ban around the election season (Felipe, 2013). This ban creates checkpoints all over the Philippines which search for firearms. These checkpoints are accompanied by a ban on carrying firearms unless one is a member of the Philippines National Police. There are other minor exemptions granted to certain individuals on a case by case basis. The most glaring exemption is provided for private security agencies (R.A. 5487, 1969). This exemption is considered essential because it permits the continued existence of the private security apparatus that has developed in response to the political violence in the Philippines. Governors that are trying to register their campaigns will be escorted in long caravans of armed security personnel. These forces act as private armies for the campaign and will carry out their dirty work with ruthless efficiency. The gun ban law, regularly passed as the SAFE Act, seems to ignore that the perpetrator of the Maguindanao Massacre was the private militia of Ampatuan political clan.
The necessity of private security forces, citizen militias, and paramilitary groups all emphasize the need for increased legitimacy of the Philippine armed forces and police. The most pressing issue before the Philippine National Police is the need for forensics capabilities. The PNP lacks even the most basic capabilities for forensics the end result of which is a culture of corruption. Without forensics, people are largely charged with crimes on witness testimony which can be easily subjected to intimidation or harassment. Increased forensics capabilities would decrease the need to rely on such testimony that places citizens in harm’s way. However, it would be unlikely that increased forensics capabilities would entirely eliminate the practice of using witness testimony so modifications are necessary to ensure the safety of those testifying in sensitive cases. The Philippines’ witness protection program is widely distrusted by the general public and does not function effectively (Mayer, 2011). President Aquino offered an 80% increase in the budget for the witness protection programs but this does not address the systemic problems surrounding the service.
One of the crucial issues of political violence in the Philippines is the lack of effective centralized investigations. When United Nations Special Rapporteur Alston visited the Philippines on his fact finding mission, he was met with a series of confrontational local executives who dismissed his claims of political violence without proper investigations. The local magistrates would often exclaim that these events were “Unexplained Killings”, despite countless incidents where the killing was committed in broad daylight without masks. Such daring crimes are intended to intimidate and scare political opponents into silence or inaction. The killers acted with such reckless disregard for their own safety because they knew they could rely on the bureaucratic apathy and incompetence of many local officials. The Philippines government certainly tried to hold local officials accountable for the bloodshed by tasking the ombudsman with the responsibility of investigating any corruption by government employees (Alston, 2008). The issue with this approach is that there is a mismatch between the scope of duties and the resources provided. In Alston’s report, he issues a scathing critique of the Ombudsman’s office which he characterizes as a front for false investigations carried out by other departments within the executive branch of the Philippines. Alston raised several important points, mainly the lack of independence for the Ombudsman’s office. The Ombudsman was intended to be a wholly independent office with the capabilities to carry out investigations. Alston notes that this was not at all what he encountered. He found that the Ombudsman’s office had transferred almost all of their investigatory capabilities to the Department of Justice and were clearly ignoring cases that should have demanded their involvement. This problem is best solved by appointing a special prosecutor or create a commission tasked with the mass indictment of as many suspected parties as possible. These indictments would help foster the culture of accountability and return rule of law to these violence ravaged areas. This commission would then oversee each cases journey through the courts and ensure that cases are not dismissed due to corruption, intimidation, or criminal activity. Former President Arroyo tried to create a police task force that would handle this issue but it was bogged down by incompetence and a possible motive to not actually complete their stated objectives. Special Rapporteur Alston notes in his report that the task force, Usig, seemed to distort their numbers in order to inflate their success and decrease the semblance of a problem.
Since many of the victims of the political killings have been journalists it is important to decrease incentives and increase punishments for aspiring murderers. The presence of a free press is absolutely vital to the health of a democracy and the Philippines is currently failing in this regard. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 370 journalists that have been murdered in the Philippines in the last decade alone (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2014). The International News Safety Institute listed the Philippines as the third most dangerous place in the world after Syria and Iraq (PhilStar, 2014). Journalists have become easy targets and casualties in this conflict because they represent potential threats to existing power structures, and with the current environment of impunity for assassinations, there is little risk of getting caught. The Committee to Protect Journalists has created a list of recommendations for addressing this issue but many of them are emotional appeals including condemnations against killing journalists. Tactics involving just rhetoric seem unlikely to have the desired effect against these armed murderers with political interests. The government of the Philippines must echo the sentiments expressed by the Committee to Protect Journalists and pass swift reforms for the killing of journalists. These reforms would not increase the punishments for murder that already exist in the Philippines but would raise the level of investigation to a national level. This would also decrease incentives for local officials to engage in the murder of journalists, as they can just intentionally mismanage the prosecution.
One of the most challenging aspects of decreasing the political violence in the Philippines will be the depoliticization of the military. The AFP has been widely observed to have become more interested in the everyday politics of the state. This represents a dangerous interest that needs to be corrected immediately. Militaries that become interested in politics often find themselves playing active roles in coups or other undemocratic behavior. In order to address this issue the military must be subjected to strict civilian oversight. This entails elected officials that are briefed on the covert actions of the AFP and must continuously approve of their endeavors. Without this style of oversight, the AFP is given free rein to act without consequence. The AFP currently has limited civilian oversight which did not concern the previous Arroyo administration (Mietzner, 2011). Given the opportunity to add increased civilian oversight to the Philippine Defense Reform Program, Arroyo turned it down. What limited authority the civilians of the Philippines possess has been abused by politicians seeking to profit from nepotism. Many military posts have been filled by the appointments of corrupt politicians (Ibid.). Much of the political interests of the military can be understood through the lens of martial law. The military, as an institution and substate actor, is at the height of its power during the destabilizing moments of chaos where they are able to implement martial law. This provides dangerous incentives to the institution tasked with maintaining order. In 2009 martial law was declared after the discovery of the Maguindanao Massacre. This only lasted only a week but previous declarations of martial law have lasted as long as a decade (Ferrer, 2011).
The issue of political violence is infinitely complex. Political violence is only the rational option for political actors when there is little to no risk of being caught and punished (Frank, 2006). Once the costs for political violence outweigh the benefits, then no rational actor would undertake such an action. The only foreseeable hope for this nascent democracy is to pursue the aforementioned policies that seek to dismantle the system and culture of political violence. This problem will not be resolved quickly but will take careful public policy efforts that may lead to an eventual internal peace in the Philippines.
Brian Wivell is a Junior at the George Washington University studying Political Science and History.
Alston, P. (2008). Philippines (UNCHR). Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston: Addendum: Mission to [sic] Philippines.
Aquino, N. (2014, November 14). Philippines Deadlier Than U.S. As Farmers Copy Guns at Home. Bloomberg Business Week.
Committee to Protect Journalists. (2014, October 28). Philippines: The Road to Justice.
Felipe, C., & Crisostomo, S. (2013, September 27). Election Gun Ban Starts Tomorrow. PhilStar.
Ferrer, R., & Hernandez, C. (2012). The Military in Democratic Development: A Philippine Case Study. 139-164.
Filipino Legal Code. (1969, June 21). R.A. 5487 or the Private Security Agency Act.
Frank, J. (n.d.). Assassin: Theory and Practice of Political Violence. Journal of Political and Military Sociology, 34(2), 389-390.
Mayer, F. (2011). Witness Protection - Remaining Challenge or Unmet Promise. Observer: A Journal on Threatened Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines, 26-28.
Mietzner, M. (2011). The Political Resurgence of the Military in Southeast Asia: Conflict and Leadership. Southeast Asia Research, 95-96.
Philippines has world's third most killings of journalists. (2014, February 20). PhilStar.
UNHCR. (2000). On the Revival of the CAFGU. Commission on Human Rights.