Soliman M. Santos, Jr. has been a long-time Bicolano lawyer and writer, specializing in human rights and international humanitarian law. He is currently a Judge of the 9th Municipal Circuit Trial Court  of Nabua-Bato, Camarines Sur.  He is  co-author Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines (2010). This piece was published in the December 27, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

This Christmas season those of us with activist friends may have gotten or  may be getting “militant” Christmas greetings, or similar greetings for a “militant” New Year.  Long considered normal season’s (or Sison’s) greetings from and among “militant” activists, the term “militant” now has some danger in its use, as one offshoot of the post-9/11 “global war on terror.”

Sometime last November, a letter to the editor in another newspaper written by Mark Dia, Philippine representative of the environmental activist group Greenpeace Southeast Asia, sort of complained about a news report there describing both environmental activists and Greenpeace as “militant.”

Dia said, “We know that the word ‘militant’ [just like ‘nationalist,’ if this writer might add] could carry either positive or negative undertones depending on the context in which it is used and the biases of the reader.  While the phrase ‘militant activists’ could project the image of determined and persistent change agents, it becomes a matter of concern for use when it is applied in a context which implies violence.”

He then went on to write about Greenpeace and its environmental activism:  “We take pride in our core value of creative and peaceful protest to spur meaningful changes for the environment.  Indeed, Greenpeace is aggressive in confronting those who abuse the environment, but we are also deeply committed to the principles of non-violence.”

He then pointed out the terminological danger:  “Taken in the wrong context, the routine use of the word ‘militant’ inadvertently serves to justify the sort of harassment and intimidation that regressive elements in the establishment use against grass-roots environmental activists and movements.”  And ended with a hope for the newspaper he had written to:  “We hope to continue to see in it fair, balanced and informed reporting that fosters positive dialogue and better understanding of the issues we collectively face.”

But in early December, the same newspaper carried an inside page news story headlined “Militants say Laguna gov ‘desperate’ on dredging.”  The “militants” referred to are from the fisherfolk activist group Pambansang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA).  Unlike Greenpeace, however, PAMALAKAYA probably relishes references to it as “militant” — and there was no ensuing similar letter-complaint to the editor from it. It may have to give that a second think in this age of globalization, especially of information.

Dia had indeed rightly raised the potentially problematic use or circulation in the international arena of the term “militant” when applied to various groups in the Philippines where the same term has quite a different sense.  This was something that was already earlier pointed out in one thematic chapter on the “terrorism” question in my co-authored 2010 book Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines.

In that chapter, I noted Australian academic David Wright-Neville’s tentative typology of Islamist groups in Southeast Asia as a useful starting point in understanding the forces that drive the move from unarmed struggle to armed struggle and ultimately to terrorism. Based on an increasing degree of political alienation, he has three classifications:

1.      Activists – usually contain their action safely within the parameters of existing laws.

2.      Militants – more inclined to push past the boundaries of existing laws, but with a self-limiting nature which reflects moral and ethical boundaries.

3.     Terrorists – no such self-limiting nature, leads to a moral disengagement  that  makes it easier to ignore the conventional distinction between combatant and non-combatant and to justify committing violence against a wider audience.

Using this typology, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are militant, while the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are terrorist.

An immediate problem arises with the term  “militant,”  however.  In other contexts such as Kashmir or Gaza it is almost synonymous with “terrorist,” or at the very least an armed rebel or insurgent.  Malaysian academic Kamarulnizam Abdullah writing on militant Islam in Malaysia uses “militant” to describe the use of unlawful force and violent acts to achieve one’s political objectives. Such acts would create either public fear or hatred against the perceived enemy of the perpetrating group or would result in public disorder, with possible detrimental effects on societal cohesion.  There is in fact there a jihadi group by the name(s) Kumpulan Militan [alternatively Mujahidin] Malaysia (KMM).

In the Philippines, however, “militant” has a very different connotation, associated with the self-defined “peaceful but militant, vigorous but non-violentstruggle of open and legal cause-oriented groups against the Marcos dictatorship. Today, it refers mainly to open and legal national-democratic (nat-dem) organizations, and activism associated with the leftist political coalition Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN). In fact, BAYAN’s activism is often referred to as “militant activism” to distinguish it from the moderate activism of the “social-democrats” or “soc-dems.” Interestingly, the term “militant” has had almost no local application to the Moro struggles, whether to pre-martial law Moro student activism or to the MNLF and MILF.

Potentially more dangerous are the associations — and listings, proscriptions, sanctions, and not the least, military targetting — that come with the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” if not properly defined, especially in law, but that is another matter requiring much longer discussion.