War Affected Children: Philippines

In Davao City, in the southern Philippines, child members of the anti-communist “Alsa Masa” paramilitary vigilante force, line up at a movie theater to watch a Rambo movie; they do so while cradling real M-16 automatic weapons in their arms.

One night I watch them at a roadblock, in the middle of the night, stopping cars to determine who is a communist and who is not. They kick a severed head around on the road. These children vehemently believe that God and democracy are on their side, and indescribable violence is regularly inflicted on anyone who disagrees with them.

The man in charge is Colonel Calida; he wears a gold Rolex watch and sits at a desk in front of Rambo posters. The Coca Cola Company buys the Alsa Masa their road block signs.

These vigilantes are young, poor and vulnerable. They act on the fundamentalist premise that ifyou're not with them, you must be a communist. Twelve-year-old boys have butchered alleged communists. In one case, the army looked on whilea 60-year-old farmer was stretched, spread-eagle, and then chopped to death. He had stolen a pair of jeans.

These people admire and aspire to their interpretation of the American ideal; their model is from another time. Unlike America, the Philippines did not acquire human freedoms as their birthright. They are desperately fighting for them now. Fighting old pains and tensions of poverty, private and public rights, family dynasty power structures that sanction certain forms of corruption, justice systems without checks and balances, and authority that prevails on patronizing whims under the guise of a constitution.

The "Rambo" image is easily grasped by the Alsa Masa, because his blatant modus operandi - freedom at all costs - confirms their right to be violent in the midst of instability. "Rambo" is mythologized through adolescent mentality and desperate people struggling for identity on personal, religious and political fronts which often become a matter of survival involving guns. Rambo’s style is played out by the Alsa Masa. On one level this situation is obvious and predictable; on another, it is absurd. Rambo is not only a symbol, but also a useful metaphor for discussing the motives and influence of external intervention in the Philippines. This place is like a window to view the dynamics of international seduction and the influences that project and distort perceptions of right and wrong. In the process, people are denied their own creative and original ways of making mistakes and changes that reflect their culture and history. It leads one to ask if American interests are more a part of the problem than the solution, and to what extent the American government will accept anything other than their interpretation of democracy.


Robert Semeniuk – Davao City, 1987