Philippine Vigilantes Reflect U.S. Strategy for ‘Low-Intensity Conflict’

<i> Peter Tarr, who is writing a book about the Philippines, last visited the country in August and September. </i>

Some weeks after retired Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub told the Senate-House Iran- contra committees about his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Nicaraguan “freedom fighters,” I went to the Philippines to research that country’s communist insurgency.

My travels in the southern islands of Negros, Cebu and Mindanao turned up evidence that the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by Singlaub and other private American citizens on the far right for use in Central America now had taken firm root in the Philippines.

The tactics are used in what Pentagon strategists call “low-intensity conflict” or LIC. They emphasize an “integrated” approach in the fight against communism combining rural civic action and humanitarian aid programs with methods of “unconventional warfare” that Singlaub and others--including the U.S. government--have covertly employed in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Singlaub’s credentials in “unconventional operations” are well known. A former chief of the Joint Unconventional Task Force in Vietnam, he participated in “Operation Phoenix,” the CIA’s notorious assassination program that resulted in the murder of an estimated 40,000 supposed Viet Cong sympathizers. More recently he served on President Reagan’s Special Warfare Advisory Group, to offer recommendations regarding LIC strategies.


There remains much speculation throughout the Philippines about the purpose of his several recent visits, spanning a period from July, 1986, to this past February. The former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea insists that he went to the Philippines to search for buried treasure. A number of his critics say the general’s real mission was to help organize civilian militias to be employed in the fight against guerrillas of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

Many questions have yet to be answered, but one thing is certain: Vigilante justice has captured the imagination of the mass of Filipinos. It is a development that has disturbing implications.

In the theory of low-intensity warfare, the establishment of paramilitary groups is a key element in the battle for the sympathies of people living in rebel-contested areas. Their proliferation is thought to deprive communists of “mass-base” support, and thus contributes to a broader effort to isolate and demoralize insurgent forces.

Several commanders of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) assured me that most vigilante groups were unarmed. But at every turn I saw deadly weapons: M-16 automatic rifles, fragmentation grenades, homemade pistols and shotguns and a bewildering variety of machetes and bolo knives. And at every turn, the men, women and children who wielded these weapons were eager to tell me that they were “prepared to die” to defend themselves against communism, which many of them called “the godless ideology.”


On a street in downtown Davao, a sprawling city of 1.2 million on Mindanao’s southeast coast, the bolo-toting “Midnight Attack Commandos” of the “Far Eastern Democratic Restoration Bureau” boasted about dismembering captured communist guerrillas while one of their leaders supplied me with leaflets published by an evangelical ministry in Arkansas that posed these burning questions: “Are the IRS, FBI, U.S. Dept. of Labor, the Mafia and labor unions part of the Vatican? Is the Pope the superboss of all government agencies as well as the Vatican?”

How did this literature get to Davao, 10,000 miles from its point of origin in Alma, Arkansas? Did the vigilantes have American contacts? Were they acting in concert with the Philippine military, or on their own? Where did their weapons come from? What were their sources of financial support?

Lt. Col. Franco Calida, police chief of Davao and the acknowledged “godfather” of the first and most successful vigilante group, the Alsa Masa, insisted that his and other paramilitary groups had arisen spontaneously. Their popularity, he said, reflected widespread dissatisfaction with the communists’ urban terror campaign conducted in the city between 1981 and 1985. Indeed, Davao had been the “murder capital” of the Philippines in those years, a city where more than 5,000 people had met violent deaths. Many of the murders were “insurgency-related,” although the activities of criminal gangs also accounted for a good deal of the carnage.

Alsa Masa, which in the local dialect means “Masses Arise,” was organized by the leader of one of those gangs early in 1986. But the movement went nowhere until Calida assumed his Davao command in July, 1986. It was at that time that Calida received a visit from Singlaub. They “chitchatted,” Calida said, but did not discuss Alsa Masa. Nevertheless, in the months following Singlaub’s visit, Alsa Masa grew exponentially. It now claims 10,000 members. “The Alsa Masa was never a CIA project,” Calida told Filipino journalists several months ago. “It is the product of abuses of the communist New People’s Army. The people were left with no choice but to band together to protect themselves.”

In Davao, virulently anti-communist radio announcer Jun Porras Pala admitted that the vigilante groups lumped together all manner of riffraff, from members of criminal gangs to adherents of fanatical religious cult groups.

In Negros, Cebu and Mindanao there were ominous signs that anti-communist fanaticism was putting innocent people in danger. In Davao, the houses of people who did not join or make financial contributions to Alsa Masa (a practice one member called “extortion for democracy”) were marked with the letter X. Anti-communist broadcasters threatened supposed sympathizers over the airwaves.

In all three islands, liberal members of the Catholic Church had been threatened both by vigilantes and military officials. During my stay in Negros, 35 clerics and newsmen were accused of being NPA sympathizers by a local military commander, and had received death threats in the mail. A similar scenario was simultaneously unfolding in Cebu. And in Davao, the Redemptorist Church was strafed from a passing truck late one August night. Earlier, Catholic members of the congregation had been called “redemterrorists” by broadcaster Pala. Redemptorists in Cebu had been similarly branded.

Why did President Corazon Aquino, an uncommonly religious woman, agree to endorse the vigilante movement? The answer lies partly in a meaningless distinction she makes between armed and unarmed vigilante groups. Aquino favors the mobilization of unarmed citizen patrols, called Nakasaka, that warn the military of NPA activity. She favors these groups, but does not proscribe the activities of armed groups.


American officials may have influenced Aquino’s policy. On March 16, 1987, she ordered a government-trained militia, the Civilian Home Defense Force, “and all private armies and other armed groups” to disband. The CHDF, with 70,000 members nationwide, had been active since the 1970s in the fight against the NPA, but its ill-disciplined members had been blamed for many of the military abuses committed against civilians in counterinsurgency operations.

A phase-out of the CHDF was mandated in the new Philippine constitution, adopted in February. But soon after Aquino issued the order to disband paramilitary groups, she rescinded it. The Philippine military, led by Gen. Fidel Ramos, was lobbying hard for retention of the CHDF. So was Local Goverment Secretary Jamie Ferrer, slain in August. Aquino and her military had been repeatedly lectured, directly and indirectly, by high-ranking U.S. officials on how to fight the communists. One such lecture was delivered on March 19, 1987, by Richard L. Armitage, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He offered a blunt critique of AFP tactics in testimony before the House subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Armitage’s remarks clearly indicated American impatience with Aquino’s policy of reconciliation, in effect during her first 12 months in office. Even after the failure of peace talks with the radical left and the collapse of a cease-fire in the AFP-NPA war that had held for only 60 days, Aquino continued to offer an olive branch to the left. On Feb. 28, she proposed amnesty and rehabilitation for rebels who would lay down their arms, in the interests of “healing the wounds of our nation.”

On March 18, a time bomb exploded at the Philippine Military Academy. It was apparently intended to kill Aquino, who was to address the academy’s graduating class four days later. When commencement day arrived, the Philippine president unveiled a new strategy--one that might have gratified Singlaub himself. “The answer to terrorism of the left and the right is not social and economic reform, but police and military action,” she said, turning her back on a philosophy she had espoused since coming to power.

It was in this climate that Aquino rescinded her order to disband the paramilitary groups. In keeping with her new policy of “total war” against the communists, and in light of her growing reliance on Ramos, who repeatedly put down attempts by disgruntled AFP officers to take over her government, Aquino found herself, by the end of March, implementing the very counterinsurgency policies she had resisted for more than a year. She was now prepared to wage low-intensity warfare.

Her shift to a hard-line policy is likely to encourage a similarly militant response from the radical left. But even more important, the legitimation of vigilante “justice” will most likely serve to accentuate a culture of violence that has prevailed for decades in the Philippine countryside. At the core of the vigilante movement are incompetent CHDF commandos, religious cultists and members of private armies that flourished during the Marcos years.

The Philippines needs more than civic action and “humanitarian” aid programs carried out by civilian and military authorities waging low-intensity warfare. The country needs structural reforms, the most important of which is land reform. As Aquino often noted during her first year in office, the insurgency has economic and social roots. It will continue to flourish--no matter how many vigilantes are mobilized--unless the root causes are addressed.