President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of lawless violence in Davao City and surroundings last April 2. Apparently, however, it’s not only Davao or just other parts of Mindanao that’s in that state. There’s also Mindoro, where early this week two human rights activists among five who had been abducted were murdered.

Much of the country is in fact in the same state of lawless violence that Mrs. Arroyo has declared in Davao City.

No other phrase describes a situation in which men and women identified with various militant legal organizations have been arrested and tortured, and in some cases have been murdered or even disappeared without a trace, as happened in Central Luzon last year, when some two dozen leaders of militant groups were killed.
Or a situation in which the security guards of private companies can charge the picket lines of striking workers and maim them at will while the police look on; or a state in which, whether in city or countryside, and even in the most crowded streets, people can be ambushed, kidnapped, robbed and killed with impunity.

Only a state of lawless violence describes the impunity with which community journalists are being killed in this country at an average of three a year since 1986.

Only that state can describe the fact that in the two cases of murdered journalists last year, in which a broadcaster in San Pablo City, Laguna, and a newspaper editor in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, were killed? the first on a busy street in the early evening and the second on an equally busy street in broad daylight?no one has been taken into custody and tried.

In the case of Edgar Damalerio of Pagadian, witnesses had identified the prime suspect as a policeman. He has been charged and was confined to a police camp, from which he conveniently disappeared once a warrant for his arrest was issued by a local judge. Despite urgent appeals to the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Philippine National Police by Damalerio’s widow and colleagues as well as several media groups, the suspect is still to be apprehended, and is suspected to be under the protection of his associates and superiors in the police.

Of course it’s not just journalists who’re urdered in Philippine streets. Bodies turn up regularly in Metro Manila, usually the victims of either professional criminals or, even more regularly, of police vigilantes. In almost every case, no one is brought to justice, leaving the kin of those murdered to lament the lack of simple justice in this country.

All over the Philippines the evidence mounts. Despite a well-developed legal system, which includes a hierarchy of courts run by more or less competent men and women, despite the penal code and a prosecution system in place since before independence, and despite its many laws guaranteeing due process, life, and liberty, lawlessness and its companion, violence, have become the rule rather than the exception in Philippine society.

One is thus tempted to urge the President to declare the entire country to be in a state of lawless violence, which would merely describe its current state. Except that such a declaration would probably result in more lawlessness rather than less, among other reasons because such a declaration, as in Davao, would empower the police and the military even further, encouraging both to take those legal short cuts that, by demonstrating to the citizenry that their rights exist only on paper, fuel rebellion and armed resistance.

That the police and the military will interpret any declaration of an emergency anywhere as a license for their own brand of lawless violence is evident in Davao City, where police and military raids on citizens’ homes have continued despite the complaints of Muslim leaders that their communities are being singled out for harassment. Several people have also been abducted from the communities, for which residents blame the police and military, although they have denied the charge.

Before the complaints of harassment and abductions, Davao officials have reacted with what amounts to resignation and a confession that they’re powerless. The Davao City prosecutor, for example, limited himself to advising the Muslim community to file complaints of violation of domicile against police and military teams that have been entering homes at will. Heavily armed soldiers, say human rights groups, raided a coastal community in Davao only last week, and without the benefit of any document, searched residents’ homes?and, as if the country were still under martial law, “invited” community leaders for questioning.

The Arroyo declaration of a state of lawless violence in Davao City was prompted by the bombings at the Davao airport and the Davao wharf?bombings which have been blamed on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose involvement is at the very least unverified.

Apparently, the police and the military are eager to show results in their hunt for the bombers. To do that they have resorted to the usual shortcuts that amount to the use of the very same lawless violence they’re supposed to curb, in effect attempting to combat terrorism with terrorism. The violence and lawlessness thus continue, not only from the usual suspects from the armed Muslim and Left groups, but also from the very agencies charged with implementing the law.

In Mindoro, however, lawless violence by police and military elements is going on without the benefit of any declaration. The murder of human rights activist Eden Marcellana and peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy are only the most recent manifestations of that state.

While the military command in Mindoro has denied the involvement of any of its troops or units in the abductions and killings, only the military stood to benefit from them. That alone provokes enough suspicion that at least some soldiers, or even units of the military in Mindoro are involved.

That the abductors went out of their way to describe themselves as members of the vigilante group Alsa Masa, which has never operated in Mindoro, reinforces that suspicion further, as does the military’s dismissal of the charge that it was responsible.

Col. Jovito Palparan, commanding officer of the 204th Army Brigade in Mindoro, went as far as to imply that the killings were justified when he told the media that the groups to which Marcella and Gumanoy belonged had been “coddling” guerrillas of the New People’s Army, and that they had been killed by citizens tired of NPA depredations.

The more likely reason for the killing of Marcellana was that she was in the forefront of a human rights campaign in Mindoro, in which her organization, Karapatan (Rights) has documented hundreds of human rights violations since 2001, all of them attributed to the units of the 204th Brigade and to the paramilitary groups under its command. On the eve of her murder, Marcellana was also scheduled to appear before the Commission on Appointments in Manila to argue against the promotion to one-star general of Colonel Palparan.

While these do not provide conclusive proof that the military was responsible for the killings of Marcellana and Gumanoy, they do at least suggest the possibility. They also suggest that, given this country’s experience both past and current?the police and the military, the government’s own Human Rights Commission has consistently found, are the leading violators of human rights in the country?much of the appalling lawless violence that afflicts it could be reduced by the civilian authorities’ exercising greater control over the very agencies charged with curbing violence and implementing the law.

The alternative is more rather than less of the lawless violence threatening to turn not only Davao and Mindoro, but other parts of the country as well, into a showcase of police and military terrorism and abuse.

(, April 24, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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