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PHILIPPINES: Needed: Rule Of Law, Not Rule Of Gun

Danilo Reyes

With renewed conflict in central Mindanao following a failed peace deal between the Philippine government and local Muslim separatists, the government has again stressed the need to arm civilians to protect their lives and communities. Predictably, this has led to some terrible outcomes.

A recent shooting incident involving two village officials, killing one, depicts the stark reality that when people carry firearms without any notion of responsibility, it results in abuse, if not death.

Even before 52-year-old Neptali Aracena, a village secretary in the province of North Cotabato, was murdered, he knew he had been targeted to be killed. Sensing the threat to his life, Mr. Aracena carried a pistol and took other precautionary measures.

The question of where and how he got his firearm has not been answered thus far. Village secretaries should not have guns. What risk is there in performing the duties of a village secretary? In this part of Mindanao, however, the roles of civilian officials and security forces overlap.

Consequently, regulating firearms is meaningless. Not only can civilians or elected officials obtain firearms illegally, the government also has a policy to arm civilians.

The other protagonist in the recent shooting in central Mindanao was the chief of a nearby village, Erlando Pacite. The conflict began when the latter’s son, whom Mr. Aracena and a village watchman had held in custody earlier over a complaint of battery, claimed they had him beaten.

In a society where law and order exists, Mr. Pacite, being an elected official and agent of the state, should have allowed the law to run its course. He should have inquired why his son was held and whether his claims were true.

An elected official’s responsibility is to his constituents, not his family members. However, in reality, elected positions have been abused and used to protect the official’s own interests—in this case, his family.

This abuse of power is what occurred in Mr. Pacite’s case, for he ruled by the barrel of a gun. Instead of letting the police investigate his son’s alleged crime and the alleged beating by Neptali Aracena and his fellow village watchman, he and his son targeted Mr. Aracena for death.

Mr. Pacite’s action is obviously contrary to that expected of an elected official in a society that respects the law. Yet Mr. Pacite had no qualms about seeking revenge against those who aggrieved his son. Like Mr. Aracena, Erlando Pacite also owned a firearm. Again, it is unknown where he obtained his pistol and what justified him carrying it.

It was the firearm he used to shoot Mr. Aracena in a crowded public market. Before Mr. Aracena fell dead to the ground, he also shot at Mr. Pacite with his pistol, wounding him.

Since the shooting incident, there has been no word that Erlando Pacite or his son have been arrested or charged with Mr. Aracena’s murder. Aracena’s family members are not keen to take legal action either; they simply want revenge. No one has even asked why these two people were carrying guns. Most people in this area of Mindanao believe that officials have permission to carry firearms.

Where do civilians get this permission and where do they get the guns? 

To obtain a firearm one must apply for a permit from the Philippine National Police and give a valid reason for doing so, such as a threat to one’s life. The police are supposed to evaluate the case and decide whether or not to issue the permit. Sometimes permits are issued to civilians that the police and military claim are their “assets.?

Whether or not a person is qualified or fit to carry a firearm is decided solely at the discretion of the issuing official. Sometimes the permit comes with an agreement to carry out certain duties upon the orders of the police or military officer issuing it. However, in reality, anyone can be issued a gun permit without performing any specific duty under official supervision, according to the official’s judgment.

 In fact, before broadcast journalist Dennis Cuesta was murdered in August this year in General Santos City in Mindanao, local police authorities had claimed he was supposed to be issued a permit to carry a firearm, as he was considered a police asset. His papers were being processed after Mr. Cuesta began receiving death threats. Before he was issued these documents, however, he was murdered.

The police had decided to let Mr. Cuesta carry a gun for his own protection, instead of providing him with police protection. It is not uncommon for journalists in Mindanao to carry firearms, with permits signed by local police or military officials. Apart from this dubious way of obtaining a permit, there are other ways to obtain firearms too.

In fact, the government has had a long-standing policy of arming civilians against insurgents and groups it considers threats to internal security. When conflict renewed in some parts of Mindanao this year, the government publicly announced the shipment of shotguns from Manila to Mindanao for civilians, in particular for the Civilian Volunteer Organization and the newly created Police Auxiliaries. This was based on the rationale that, by having firearms, civilians would be able to defend their communities.

The Police Auxiliaries are the police counterpart of the military’s militia forces, the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Units, which have been operating under the army’s command since 1987. Unlike the militias, which are engaged in combat operations with soldiers, these auxiliary police are supposed to maintain law and order in civilian communities. However, they can engage in fighting if the situation warrants it, according to their judgment.

Either way, it is easy for people to obtain firearms and permits to carry them. With the spread of loosely regulated firearms on Mindanao, one can imagine the gravity of the risk to which people are exposed, in the face of a growing number of gun holders.

The shootout between Messrs. Aracena and Pacite is just one deadly example in what is becoming the wild, wild Philippines.

Posted on 2008-12-08
Asian Human Rights Commission

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