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Alsa Masa (Masses Arise)

The government of President Corazon C. Aquino, either by omission or by design, initially failed to take advantage of the situation following its ascension to power to confront a bewildered communist insurgency. The government did not capitalize upon the high level of legitimacy it enjoyed domestically and internationally and the confusion within the rank and file of the Communist Party of the Philippines / New People's Army [CPP/NPA] generated by the People Power Revolution of February 1986.

From a nuisance guerrilla strength of about 2,000 in 1981, the [CPP/NPA] grew to about 8,000 in 19846 and 10,000 to 12,000 by 1985. Davao, a city in Mindanao Island, became the laboratory for CPP/NPA urban terrorism. Hit squads, more commonly known by the mid-80's as "sparrow units", enforced tax collection from businessmen. Kidnapping, bombing, and vandalizing of businesses exacerbated the already crippling violence. Motivated by the military, political, and psychological impacts of the experiments, the communist party by the mid-1980's started to export these terror tactics to other urban centers in the country.

The original anti-communist movement that "spontaneously" organized in Davao City was widely perceived as a people's uprising against the violent excesses of the CPP/NPA urban guerrillas. This original movement, which was dubbed Alsa Masa, and the other armed and unarmed anti-communist groups traced their origin to the February 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled the regime of ex-President Marcos. These anti-communist groups were dubbed "vigilantes" to discredit their success by leftist groups and media.

Vigilantism refers to the violent or non-violent reponses of a group of people to the political terrorism or violence perpetrated by another group for political objectives. It is akin to the type of political violence which some social scientists refer to as "establishment violence." It is a form of political violence or terrorism wherein the objective is to reinforce a political and social structure.

Vigilante groups spread throughout the Philippines after the breakdown of the cease-fire between the government and the NPA in early 1987. In the course of 1986/87, some 200 armed private bands collectively called "vigilantes" emerged in the Philippines [other estimates suggest 250 to 600 anti-communist groups organized throughout the country], ostensibly organized against a rising tide of communist guerrilla insurgency.

The vigilantes appearance, encouraged by local military commanders, should be seen against the long history of Philippine "private armies". The vigilanles' rise came after the formal dissolution of such paramilitary groups as the Civilian Home Defence Forces (CHDF), which led to a further complication of the constitutional-legal foundation of all para-military organizations in the Philippines. The "vigilante" groups would seem to be little more than CHDF without the over-arching label or command structure.

A variety of vigilante groups became an effective check to the Communists. The one in the Mindanao capital of Davao was known as Alsa Masa, a Tagalog term that means "people's uprising" or "Up with the Masses". The Alsa Nasa was founded in April 1986 [other sources report November 1986] by Rolando Cagay, a former NPA “tax collector” in Davao City. The former "logistic" officer of the NPA was fed up with insurgent atrocities, such as liquidation of non-sympathizers and forced taxation imposed on the poor to support the communist movement.

The Alsa Masa commander, Lieutenant Colonel Franco M. Calida, advertised himself to the press from an office decorated with a big poster of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. Calida, known as the "Godfather of the Alsa Masa" defended the movement as a "spontaneous reaction of people against the communists." But Alsa Masa was organized by the police. General Fidel Ramos, the former Chief of Staff identified the Alsa Masa as deserving the full support and encouragement in dismantling communism.

In 1986, the Communists controlled a slum district called Agdao. Calida "cleaned out" the area within two years with his 3,000 men, numbers of them Communist defectors. But his and other groups, acting without official supervision, summarily killed suspects and settled old feuds.

By 1987 a new, unsettling element clouded civil-military relations: vigilante groups that hunted down suspected communists and other leftists. The first and most famous such group was Alsa Masa (Masses Arise), which virtually eliminated communist influence from the Agdao slum area of Davao City. The potential for civilians to accomplish what the military could not aroused official interest.

There was some concern that Alsa Masa was made up of vigilante groups of criminals and private armies. But Alsa Masa was legitimized by the police because it was an effective vigilante against the NPA. Metropolitan District Command Chief LTC Franco Calida supported Alsa Masa, and encouraged other military commanders in Mindanao to support their formation.

The "Alsa Hasa" movement of Davao City restored law and order to the city and brought peace to the lives of hundreds of military, police and civilians. It also dislocated the political infrastructure of the CPP in the city. Inspired by the success of the "Alsa Hasa", the government of President Corazon Aquino launched a nation wide program to organize unarmed vigilantes or "Nakasaka", in areas affected or threatened by the communist insurgents. Nakasaka, an acronym for the Visayan phrase Nagkahlusang Katawhan Alang sa Kallnaw or" United People for Peace," was the name adopted by President Aquino to Identify a government sponsored anti-communist vigilantes that were the unarmed version of the Alsa Masa of Davao City.

Soon there were more than 200 such groups across the country, with names that hinted at their violent, cult-like nature: Remnants of God; Guerrero of Jesus; Sin, Salvation, Life, and Property; Rock Christ; and the frightening Tadtad (Chop-Chop), a mystical cannibalistic cults that heheaded victims and ate their livers, and liked to pose its members for photographs with the severed heads of their victims. Vigilantes often carried magical amulets to ward off bullets, and their rituals were sometimes performed to loud rock music.

Domestic human rights groups, such as Task Force Detainees, and international monitors, such as Amnesty International, publicized incidents of torture. Amnesty International asserted that torture of communist rebels and sympathizers had become a common practice. One paramilitary group in 1988 responded to such criticism by shooting the Filipino regional chairman of Amnesty International. Six human rights lawyers were killed in the first three years of the Aquino government. More than 200 critics of the government were victims of extrajudicial executions. Many vigilantes carried pistols; others were skilled with long, heavy knives called bolos.

Despite many documented abuses, United States and Philippine government officials spoke in support of some vigilante groups. Cory Aquino originally applauded the vigilantes as prototypes of "people power," but their abuses tarnished her name with human rights activists. The Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, a New York-based organization, concluded in June 1988 after months of research that "the human rights of Filipinos have suffered grave violations on a wide scale." Criticism from such organizations, which had pleaded for Ninoy during his imprisonment, grated a raw nerve in Cory, and she angrily refuted the charge. The director of her human rights commission indirectly confirmed the complaint, however, saying that "in an environment of war . . . it is most difficult, if not impossible, to prevent brutality."

Her secretary of local government, Jaime Ferrer, ordered all local officials to set up civilian volunteer organizations or face dismissal. Ferrer was gunned down on August 2, 1987, for this and other anticommunist activities. The government made a distinction between ad hoc vigilante groups and the civilian volunteer organizations. The latter, which included Nation Watch (Bantay Bayan), were to conform to the following guidelines set forth on October 30, 1987, by the Department of National Defense: membership in the organizations was to be voluntary, members were to be screened by the police, the organizations were to be defensive, and they were to eschew identification with individual landowners or politicians.

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Page last modified: 12-05-2016 19:04:08 ZULU