Philippines Sends Troops to Central Region to Safeguard Polls from Private Armies

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
2022.02.02
Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippines Sends Troops to Central Region to Safeguard Polls from Private Armies Tamano Kamaong Mamalapat (center, polo shirt), a former rebel who led a private armed group, hands over 50 high-powered rifles to the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Cotabato, Philippines, Aug. 13, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The Philippine military said Wednesday it would dispatch troops to the central Visayas region to control “private armed groups” employed by local politicians, following an uptick in politics-related violence ahead of the May 9 general election.

Voters will be going to the polls to elect a new president and vice-president, half of the seats in the 24-member Senate, all 316 House seats, and about 18,000 official positions ranging from town councilor to mayors and governors. As many as 155 private armed groups (PAGs) operate across the Philippine archipelago, with about half functioning to intimidate voters, according to the national police and government officials.

“I requested it because we have a mandate to support the Comelec (Commission on Elections) in ensuring peaceful elections,” Maj. Gen. Edgardo De Leon, commander of the Army’s 8th Infantry Division, told reporters. “It was granted.” 

“We are monitoring for private armed groups or political armed groups, we’re hunting them. The guidance given to us is to destroy the private armed groups,” De Leon said.

The commander said about one-quarter of the 500-member 3rd Infantry Battalion already is in Samar, a province considered an election “hot spot.” The battalion is part of the 8th Division.

The government identifies PAGs as organized groups hired by politicians to intimidate or sow violence against opponents. Officials said the groups exist because of a long-running gun culture in the Philippines.

Despite a constitutional ban, a PAG controlled by the Ampatuans, a Muslim political clan, waylaid supporters of a rival in 2009, killing 58 including 32 members of the local media who were covering the unfolding events. Ten years later, 28 Ampatuan clan members were convicted while 56 others were acquitted.

More recently, a gunman shot and killed an elections officer in Catarman, a town in Samar, in November 2021. One month later, gunmen ambushed and killed a mayor and injured another mayor who was accompanying him on a trip to the southern island of Basilan. 

In both cases, police have said political rivalry could be the motive. 

In late June 2021 – nearly a year ahead of the election – the government announced plans to get rid of the PAGs over fears of violence.

“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,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said at the time. 

Red rebels

In the volatile southern Philippines, communist guerrillas as well as Muslim militants have moonlighted as members of PAGs, complicating the security situation in the Mindanao region, according to officials. 

Communist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas have been waging one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies, which began in 1969. They are also known to operate in Samar and in other impoverished areas. President Rodrigo Duterte ended peace talks with the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines in 2017 after accusing its rebel wing of carrying out deadly attacks despite the negotiations.

The NPA’s strength is estimated at around 5,000 fighters nationwide, down from at least 20,000 at its peak in the 1980s. 

“My troops are focused on counter-insurgency. Their attention will be divided (by the elections) if I am not going to request additional forces, [an] additional battalion,” De Leon said.

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