Philippines Seeks to Disband ‘Private Armed Groups’ Ahead of 2022 Polls

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
2021.06.30
Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippines Seeks to Disband ‘Private Armed Groups’ Ahead of 2022 Polls Members of the Abo Group (kneeling), an armed private group for hire in Parang, a town in the Maguindanao province in the southern Philippines, are pictured after turning over their weapons to military and police personal in Cotabato City, March 26, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Authorities have identified and are seeking to disband more than 150 “private armed groups” employed by politicians across the Philippines and that potentially could foment violence ahead of the 2022 general election, the interior secretary said Wednesday.

Many of these groups operate away from the political center in Manila, authorities said, including in a Muslim autonomous region in the south where locals will elect their own leaders for the first time next year.

“In Mindanao, some parts continue to live under a culture of violence and fear because of the proliferation of private armed groups,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said during an online meeting of a national task force that focuses on those groups. 

“These gun-wielding thugs continue to strike fear among the innocent, spark vicious clashes with rival clans, or push the agenda of the powerful. This must stop altogether,” he said. 

About 155 private armed groups operate across the Philippines, of which nearly half are highly active, officials said. The government identifies them as organized groups hired by politicians to intimidate or sow violence against opponents. 

These guns-for-hire exist because of a long-running gun culture in the Philippines, coupled with the presence of feuding clans in tribal areas as well as rival political dynasties trying to outdo each other, he said.

The Philippine Constitution stipulates that private armies and other groups not recognized by a duly constituted authority shall be dismantled.

Apart from neutralizing these armed groups, the government needed to change the economic factors that created them in the first place, Año also said.

“We must address the reasons why people join and organize these PAGs and why political dynasties keep them,” he said, referring to the private armed groups. 

“Now that the election is near, there could also be a proliferation of armed men,” Año said. “As early as now, we must negotiate with political and dominating families to prevent them from inciting the rise of potential PAGs.” 

Twenty-three people were killed and 50 injured during mid-term polls in 2019, and as many as 50 people died in poll-related violence during the 2016 presidential election, according to statistics from the Philippine National Police.

Political clans, Año said, must be encouraged “to disband the goons under their influence” so fair elections could proceed. 

“We must also apply pressure on not just the members, but also the leaders of these groups by investigating and prosecuting them. This way, we strip these private armed forces of all their excuses and justifications to remain or organize,” he said.

The secretary expressed optimism that the government could persuade these groups to surrender or risk being targeted in military and police operations. 

Ballot choices

Voters are to go to the polls in May 2022 to choose President Rodrigo Duterte’s replacement along with 12 members of the Senate, all 300-plus members of the House of Representatives as well as thousands of officials, who range from governors and mayors to village chiefs and council members.

Also in 2022, the people of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will elect their own set of officials.

The autonomous region is governed today by a transitional council led by former Muslim separatist rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose term expires next year. 

MILF leader Ahod Balawag “Murad” Ebrahim, the head of the transitional council, has been appealing for an extension of his term to implement reforms that were delayed, he said, because of the coronavirus pandemic. He has warned of violence from other Muslim armed groups dissatisfied with the progress of peace deal signed between the MILF and Manila in 2014.

While terms of the agreement called for the MILF to decommission all of its firearms, many of its members are known to have kept some, officials said.

Meanwhile, many former rebels and members of armed groups in the south moonlight as private security guards for politicians, leading to violence in some instances. The most jarring case occurred in November 2009 when members of the Muslim Ampatuan political clan massacred 58 members of the rival Mangudadatu clan, their supporters and journalists.  

In December 2019, dozens of Ampatuan clan-members were convicted of murder, but more than 50 others – including dozens of police officers and body guards in the employ of the Ampatuans – were acquitted. 

Some relatives and members of the Ampatuan clan are back in power and will be contesting local elections next year.

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