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

October 11, 1987|Peter Tarr | Peter Tarr, who is writing a book about the Philippines, last visited the country in August and September.

NEW YORK — 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.

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