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Let’s Not Forget About the Guns: Anti-Violence Tactics in the Philippines

15/01/2010

This week, the Philippines instituted a nationwide, five-month ban on guns in the run-up to elections in May. Several thousand checkpoints are due to be set up and dozens of people have already been arrested for violating the ban.

Such a drastic measure – in a country with an estimated 1 million unlicensed guns and dozens of private militias controlled by political leaders and warlords – is seen as necessary given high levels of political violence surrounding elections in recent years. In 2007 more than 100 people died in violence around local elections. More recently, last November saw the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao, and several local election candidates have been killed in different parts of the country. Kidnappings have also occurred, which makes it even more striking that the ban applies to private bodyguards. Even off-duty police and military are expected to leave their guns at home.

I was personally struck by this story because it reminded me that at times the study of political violence can wander into rather abstract territory. It’s possible to spend a lot of time talking about ideology, psychology, social movement theory, indoctrination, cyber-recruitment, et cetera – and forget about the actual instruments of violence that militants use. Without the bomb and the gun, would we even care what radicalised fringe movements are up to? And yet, it seems to me we don’t spend enough time considering access to weaponry as part of holistic counter-campaigns against political violence throughout the world (and when we do, it is often at the extreme end of terrorist acquisition of WMD).

In some ways, this makes sense. Guns and bomb-making materials are ubiquitous in modern society – easily trafficked and bought, relatively inexpensive, difficult to eliminate entirely. Why focus on the instruments of violence when their presence and availability are largely a given part of the equation?

But surely it is just as naïve or idealistic to think that radically minded and violently oriented individuals will ever be completely eliminated from society as well. Their specific pathology and political mindset may vary from decade to decade, but as a sub-constituency of modernity their continuing presence can be safely assumed.

The Filipino example highlights the extent to which political will – not projected efficacy – drives anti-violence strategies. Plenty of CT officials in the US, for example, wonder whether Mumbai-style attacks will emerge in the American homeland; we’ve already seen the tragic example of how much damage firearms can wield in the Fort Hood shootings.  Yet there is virtually no chance that significant gun control measures will be enacted in the United States. Even the nationally traumatic mass shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech did not generate sustained political interest in gun control. The idea that a country would ban guns as a preventive measure simply would not compute in an American cultural and legal context.

At the same time, efforts to control the vast flow of small arms around the globe have been hampered by both practical difficulties – such as the sheer number of guns in ungovernable conflict zones – and a lack of collective political action at the international level. The Obama administration has indicated a greater openness to multilateral efforts to control the small arms trade, generating the predictablehowls of outrage among certain domestic American constituencies (who also, by the by, display some interesting ideological narratives of their own, as well as an apparently unswerving commitment to Godwin’s law).

In short, while the Filipino example has its limits – i.e., we cannot count on a global gun ban to solve the problem of political violence – I think it’s an interesting example of how different political contexts can generate different anti-violence strategies.  Its temporary nature also showcases a certain sort of societal expediency, with restrictive measures tied to specific events rather than implemented ad infinitum (thus potentially antagonising key actors and the general populace).

It is also, in the end, a refreshingly honest step to take – a way of admitting that political tensions in the country are at such a level that violence cannot be mediated or precluded without removing the instruments of force themselves. It is this sort of embrace of reality – rather than a fatalistic submission to the ubiquity of weapons – that one hopes might catch on in other parts of the world. At the very least, I think it deserves a greater voice in our ongoing discussions.