The human rights group Amnesty International on Friday warned the Philippine government against arming untrained civilian militias to repel Moro rebels, saying the move would only set off a “chain of reprisals” that would endanger more lives in Mindanao.
“Experience from around the world shows that the deployment of civilian militias only increases the danger facing civilians,” said AI Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zafiri.
“All sides to this conflict should step back from the brink and demonstrate their commitment to avoid harming civilians,” he said.
The sentiment was echoed in the Senate, where even senators who used to be actors playing gunslinging, vigilante heroes on screen opposed the plan to arm civilians, claiming it would only spark a civil war.
Amnesty issued its objection Friday after the Philippine National Police announced that a shipment of 1,000 shotguns had been sent to Mindanao and that the arms were to be issued to “selected, screened and trained” police auxiliaries, deputized village watchmen and selected civilian volunteer organizations (CVOs).
The PNP said it would supply 12,000 more shotguns if the project proved to be successful.
Local leaders in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato have pursued the formation of civilian groups following the attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in several municipalities.
The MILF rebels slipped into the towns of Kauswagan, Kolambugan, Maigo and Bacolod in Lanao del Norte and Maasim in Sarangani on Monday, destroying houses and schools, brazenly killing residents and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
Amnesty said the existence of CVOs would only fuel more clashes in the region, pointing to claims by the MILF that it had targeted armed civilians during the recent attacks that left 40 people dead.
In an interview with reporters, Senator Lito Lapid said he was against arming civilians because it would only worsen the situation in Mindanao.
“The government does not know who is the rebel and the civilian, they are hard to identify. It would have been good if the government had an efficient intelligence system,” he said.
Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada said that civilians should not take the law into their hands because the military and police could handle the situation if the government did not hold them back from going all out against the rebels.
“If they (MILF) want war, the government must take it to them so that civilians would not think of defending themselves,” said Estrada.
Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla said he was alarmed at reports that civilians had started to arm themselves because the government could not fully protect their families and communities from the rebels.
Citing the declaration of the vigilante group Ilaga to engage the MILF tit-for-tat, Revilla warned that a civil war could erupt in Mindanao if the government did not step in soon to contain the conflict.