Philippines Gun Ban Kicks Off Amid Campaign Violence

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Jeoffrey Maitem / Getty Images

Philippine security forces dig up ammunition and sophisticated weapons in the restive southern province of Maguindanao on Dec. 6, 2009

An off-duty policeman with a .45 caliber pistol casually tucked into his trousers was the first person to be arrested in the Philippines' new six-month ban on carrying firearms in public — a measure aimed at reducing political killings during the election season that has only just started but is already violent.

The hapless cop was reportedly stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital region's Quezon City just 30 minutes into the gun ban that began on Jan. 10. In the first 48 hours of the clampdown, 71 people were arrested at police checkpoints across the country for carrying firearms. Many of those nabbed pleaded ignorance, but the authorities have vowed zero tolerance for violators of the ban that suspends licenses to carry firearms in public — and there are over 1 million registered handguns and rifles in the Philippines — until June 9, the last day of the official election period after the May 10 polls. Until then, only on-duty members of the security forces and licensed private security guards may carry firearms.

For unscrupulous candidates in Philippines politics, murder has long been the ultimate political tool for eliminating rivals to steal a win at the polls. "This is especially so at the level of local rather than national politics," says Benito Lim, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, who believes the baleful tradition of "guns, goons and gold" at elections will be hard to uproot. Still, Comelec, the national election commission, hopes the tough gun ban (the early arrests have been widely publicized in the local media) will reduce the potential for violence in the run-up to the polls, along with the efforts by the security forces to break up the private armed groups of feudal-style political strongmen scattered throughout the provinces. Candidates fearing they may be targeted by rivals can apply to Comelec for a maximum of two armed bodyguards drawn from the police or armed forces.

Gun bans are always rolled out general and mid-term elections in the Philippines, held every six and three years, respectively. The past three elections have each seen around 120 killings of candidates, supporters and Comelec officials, and around 250 violent incidents.

But this year's election security is under particularly intense scrutiny here and abroad after rivalry over a gubernatorial post between two Muslim clans triggered the massacre of 57 civilians, including 30 journalists, in Maguindanao province on the volatile southern island of Mindanao in November. While this was an extreme act of political violence, six candidates running for posts in other local governments have already been murdered since Jan. 1, according to press reports. In a Tuesday night police raid to uncover the weapons cache of a private armed group in Cavite province on the island of Luzon, four police officers were wounded when a suspect detonated a grenade, killing himself instantly.

Opponents of the gun ban, however, say it only puts candidates at further risk. "No amount of gun bans will stop the bad guys from using firearms to eliminate rivals. The good guys should be allowed to protect themselves," says Richard Gordon, a serving Senator and presidential candidate, whose father was assassinated in the early years of the Marcos dictatorship. With candidates staking so much money and personal prestige on winning, the only way to make elections less violent is to reduce the giddy costs of campaigning and encourage a less vitriolic debate among rivals, says Gordon.

Since the Maguindanao massacre, President Gloria Arroyo has faced a clamor of calls to dismantle the long-established private armed groups run by regionally powerful strongmen to protect their political and economic interests. Elections routinely become a dirty showdown when a clean sweep isn't anticipated, as armed goons intimidate rival candidates, cow voters and coerce Comelec officials with bribes and threats to rig votes.

Police have 68 armed groups on a watch list; most are concentrated in long-standing election trouble spots, such as the autonomous region for Muslims on Mindanao Island and a clutch of clannish northern provinces. "Based on our estimates there are at least 200 private armed groups nationwide if you include those run by landlords, businessmen and gambling lords," says Rommel Banlaoi, director of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. Many are small units with under a dozen members. But some — it is not clear how many — are virtual armies. The one operated by the Ampatuan clan blamed for the November massacre seems to have been the size of an army battalion.

The opulent élite of powerful Filipino families that have governed the nation for decades date back to the Spanish and American colonial period. But local warlords became an increasingly visible feature on the political landscape after independence in 1946. The Pacific war had just ended, and the country was awash with firearms left by the beaten Japanese forces or supplied to Filipino guerillas by the U.S. military. This was a period, too, when the government in Manila lost control over some provincial areas, enabling a new generation of families and clans to establish political strongholds. Some, but by no means all, resorted to violence, generally as a last resort to build their power bases.

President Arroyo has formed a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to recommend measures for breaking up these private armed groups over the election period — a move criticized in some circles as unnecessary. "The issue of dismantling them doesn't require further study. The police and armed forces already have a list of the private armies being run by warlords," says veteran politician Aquilino Pimentel, a Senator. As Banlaoi puts it, "The biggest challenge to getting rid of these groups are the close political connections of those running them to figures in power and allies in Congress."

All the same, progress in breaking up the private armed groups would be an undeniable achievement for Arroyo, an unpopular but hardworking leader whose presidency has been jolted by corruption scandals. She has already shown it is possible: shortly after the Maguindanao massacre, troops were rushed to the province, successfully disarming the Ampatuan clan's large private army and seizing its huge cache of high-powered weapons.

For many Filipinos, owning a firearm is both a status symbol and perceived as a necessary means of protection, says Lim. The police estimate there are over a million illegal firearms on the loose. Though trust-building and improvements to efficiency have been implemented to improve the police force's image in recent years, there is still a deep public skepticism over the competency of the force.

To enforce the gun ban, 3,500 mobile police checkpoints have been set up nationwide, and violators face jail terms of up to six years if convicted, and disqualification from holding public office. It is, of course, too early to predict whether the measures will be effective. But a cartoon in the Philippine Daily Inquirer this week succintly captured the public mood, depicting the barrel of a handgun as two fingers — crossed. And as security analyst Pete Troilo at risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments points out, "Innately resilient Filipinos and hardened expatriates ... recognize that despite the violence that will definitely accompany the elections, this does not portend a breakdown in law and order" at a wider level.

Preparations, meanwhile, are under way to hold the country's first automated elections. Some 50 million voters will elect a new President, nearly 300 lawmakers and 17,500 local government officials. Voters hope a swift and transparent electronic vote count will replace the arduous manual tally that has traditionally lasted several weeks and offered considerable scope for cheating. "We may be able to modernize the way we vote ... but can we really claim progress if some of us still resort to the Stone Age practice of just bludgeoning opponents," presidential candidate Manuel Villar told reporters. Over the past three weeks, four candidates from the Nacionalista Party, which Villar heads, have been gunned down by hitmen.