Mindanao militias on the rise
People & Power meets government-backed vigilante groups on the troubled island.
Last Modified: 14 Nov 2008 12:47 GMT

With the collapse of a recent peace deal, the violence on the Philippine island of Mindanao is as intense as ever.

People & Power's Orlando de Guzman visited the north of the island to examine how a longstanding tradition of government-backed Christian militias in the area is alive and well.

For Christian farmers on the Philippine island of Minadanao, tending to their fields commands logistics similar to that of a small military operation.

The area must be secured before they can begin ploughing due to the potential presence of fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The village of Bagolibas in the province of North Cotabato straddles a no-man’s land between Christian and Muslim communities and has been repeatedly attacked by MILF rebels in recent months.

With no discernible presence of either the military or the police here some Christian villagers have taken the law into their own hands and formed their own militia.

Disputes over land in this area date back two generations.

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"In the 1940s, 1950s, our forefathers were brought here by the government, in a programme, they promised us that this land, will be ours, and we can till this land, we can develop this land,” one local farmer tells Al Jazeera.

“The demand of the MILF, is to get back from us, the land that we legally acquired, no, from their forefathers. We strongly believe that this war will not end.”

Christians were once a minority on Mindanao where Muslims and indigenous tribes held large swathes of land before the Philippine government annexed the island after the Second World War.

An aggressive resettlement programme of Christians from the north began soon after and Muslims are now in the minority.

The war on the island has been going on for so long now that many locals almost seemed to have forgotten what it is about.

Accelerated programme

However a long-established government policy of recruiting and arming civilian militias is one of the most enduring aspects of the conflict.

"This particular resettlement programme, has been backed up by a very strong military approach, a very strong military apparatus, wherein these migrants, were also given arms, to be able to protect themselves in these areas,” Mary Ann Arnando, from the Mindanao People’s Caucus, says.

"So that has been sustained, even up to now."

Civilians are being given jobs normally the preserve of the police and army at an alarming rate across Mindanao.

In North Cotabato Al Jazeera met some new recruits being put through their paces in a military-backed militia programme that normally takes three months.

This training programme has been accelerated to just six weeks in order to fill what the authorities regard as a security vacuum.

Local militia are beig integrated into the national police force
"It's no secret that civilians here are used to handling weapons - they need it for their livelihood, and security." Says the head of the training group, who wished to remain anonymous.

"So what better way to ensure that we can control them, than have them join the military-sponsored militia force."

More than a thousand newly-trained militiamen are expected to graduate in the next few months from the North Cotabato facility alone with the aim of them holding positions against the Muslim rebels after government troops pull out.

Many of the recruits are taken directly from raw civilian village militias.

"I think the very basic description here, what is common to them, is that they are civilians," Mary Ann Arnando says. "They do not observe any chain of command, they are not accountable, and they are not also trained.

"Because of these characteristics, they are also the ones, really opening a lot of abuses and violence, among the communities."

Brutal conflict

A brutal civil conflict erupted between Muslim and Christian communitities across Mindanao in the 1970s and 1980s and the mainly Christian government used such militias to fight rival Muslim political groups.

The groups were first deployed against Muslims and then against Communist sympathisers committing shocking abuses against the civilian population in the process.

Peter Geremiah is a Catholic priest who for 30 years has been documenting the Ilaga or "the Rats", another Christian militia. His colleague, a young Italian priest, was murdered when Geremiah began exposing the Ilaga's brutality.

"Many of these groups were organized by former military men, or by military officers," he says.

Groups like the Ilaga quickly developed into fanatical Christian cults that combined folk mythology with Catholic beliefs, a development Geremiah says embarrassed church leaders.

"This is a question that embarrasses the church leaders especially the Catholic priest because they used the Catholic practices of the Christian practices to justify the atrocities and violence," he says.

Those who joined the Ilaga were said to share an apocalyptic view of the world where non-believers, which included Muslims, were enemies worthy of death.

"They displayed atrocities in public. They would roast the body of a Muslim. And they were also practicing cannibalis, they would eat human flesh and force others to eat this kind of a expectation that this would make them very courageous," Geremiah says.

The Ilaga has been disbanded but some of its members have today been integrated into government-sanctioned militias

Geremiah says militia groups are operating in lawless areas of Mindanao
One, known as Ilongo, tells Al Jazeera he joined the Ilaga and "ate many ears of Muslims."

"Don't take me for an abusive person.  Slap me twice and I will not take revenge," he says. "That's because I believe in God. The Almighty will one day pass judgment on all sinners."

The vast majority of the two million people displaced by the conflict in Mindanao are Muslims and a recent peace plan that would have recognised land that once belonged to Muslims was opposed by local Christian leaders on the island.

With the so-called land for peace deal dead Muslim rebels have once again increased attacks and the military is back on the offensive.

Ilaga links

"In a way we  maintain the violence, we circulate weapons,” Mary Ann Arnando says.  "So that there will be no semblance of order, no semblance of governance, and that's how the local elites gain control, over the area.

"If you visit these communities… you can barely find, a working, functional government, it's actually guns and private armies that hold sway."

According to Geremiah and others there is also evidence that groups similar to the Ilaga are once again operating in the more lawless regions of Mindanao.

"From our direct testimonies, yes. There are areas where they are training the Ilaga and similar groups. And yes they are many arms many weapons now selling under the table in all kinds of dealing."

In one village in North Cotabato the spokesman for one Christian militia group is the town mayor who says many of the men are remnants of the Ilaga movement and the group receives funding and weaponry from the military and local government.

The failure of the latest peace proposal has precipitated an even bigger plan to distribute weapons to Mindanao militias and the programme would also integrate local militias into the national police force as "police auxilaries".

The plan has the backing of Ronaldo Puno, the Philippine interior minister who told Al Jazeera that so-called "reformed Ilaga" would be welcome to join the police if they were qualified.

He denied however that former Ilaga who maintained fanatical beliefs would be allowed to do so.

But critics say the official reaction to the developments in Mindanao has been one of denial and indifference.

"Even the political leaders who are most identified of this movement say no no no.. we are not approving of this," Geremiah says.

"The military says that no no no.. we can take care of the peace and order situation we don't need to revive the Ilaga or other fanatical groups. But then we know… when there is kind of denials it is only for public consumption.

"The most important is not to revive the complex of the fanatical violence, because that becomes like a kind of a contagious sickness. A kind of cancer that can spread again."

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