Violence spawns violence

April 14, 2000

Philippine university fraternity houses are out of control but their actions simply mirror a corrupt gun-toting society, writes Hugh Levinson.

It was a long wait outside courtroom 312 in an airless corridor in Quezon city hall. The judge was late for the hearing. But the murder suspects were on time; four small men, handcuffed together, heads shaved, wearing canary yellow prisoner T-shirts.

While we waited, I had a painful conversation with the parents of the victim, a teenager called Nino Calinao. This respectable lower-middle class couple had undergone considerable financial hardship to send their only son to university.

Although there were tears, the Calinaos seemed more bewildered than sad. How, they wondered, could their son be killed on a college campus? And how could he be shot, apparently by professional gunmen hired by a fellow student?

The answers lie in a wave of murderous turf wars between rival fraternities and a culture of violence that seems to have infiltrated even the nation's most prestigious institutions.

Any American would recognise much about the Philippine fraternities - indeed, many date back to the days of American rule in the early years of the century.

Like their counterparts in the United States, the fraternities use names made up of Greek letters and have an exalted sense of their own traditions.

The violence starts when members are initiated, in secret rites known as "hazing". Favoured techniques include "blessing", where the entrant is blindfolded and slapped on the face several times by every member. Then there is the free-for-all, when all the members stand in a circle, kicking and punching the entrant at will. Most painful is "paddling", when senior members take it in turn to strike the entrant with a wooden oar.

Alexander Icasanio, a student at the University of the Philippines, was beaten to death in a hazing two years ago. In response, the government brought in a tough anti-hazing law, but nobody doubts that the practice still continues.

One fraternity member told me that he would not go through it again "for a million pesos". Yet he had endured the torture at the time for the sense of brotherhood, loyalty and belonging he found in the fraternity. And he admitted some naked self-interest: fraternities serve as crucial routes to good jobs, with student members turning to alumni when looking for work.

But most of the violence happens when fraternities clash. They are deeply territorial - like dogs or politicians, as one student put it. They compete in campus elections and to grab high-profile positions, such as editor of the student newspaper. These rivalries turn into clashes - rumbles - over petty incidents. A stray glance. A spilled drink. A dispute over a girlfriend.

Vows of loyalty mean any fraternity member with a grievance can automatically call on the support of his "brods", or brothers. Students say rumbles happen with monotonous regularity. One dorm at the University of the Philippines has satirised the macho fratmen by creating a rumble scoreboard, noting winners and losers.

Most rumbles are fist fights, but bottles and knives are also popular.

Occasionally someone will have a gun. That is how Den Daniel Reyes, a University of the Philippines student, was killed.

Hiring professional gunmen is a new twist. A rumble at the Philippine Institute of Technology climaxed with bomb-throwing - killing one student and injuring 40 others. Any member of a rival fraternity qualifies as a target. Nino Calinao, however, was not even a fratman. He was killed by mistake as he was sitting by a fraternity hangout.

The university authorities admit they can do little about it. The University of the Philippines has its own police force, as the normal police have been banned from campus since the oppression of the Marcos years. But the university force is woefully under-equipped. It cannot prevent rumbles because it only has two vehicles to cover the huge campus, and one of the cars is usually broken down.

It also finds it hard to investigate offences as fraternity members refuse to give evidence against each other.

No one will testify against the student who hired Nino Calinao's killers - although his name is public knowledge on campus.

Although the obvious solution would be to close the fraternities, university authorities think this would not help. The fraternities would simply go underground, making them more difficult to control.

Instead, administrators say they are trying to put pressure on fraternity alumni - many of them senior figures in politics, business and the law - to restrain their student members. Since the alumni fund the fraternities, their views carry weight.

Filipinos see the phenomenon as symptomatic of the wider problems of their society. The violence of student elections mirrors national elections. The clashes for territory are a reflection of the way politicians behave. The bonds of brotherhood are like the family loyalties that encourage widespread nepotism.

Defiance of authority is not surprising when it is possible for the rich to buy off criminal charges. And the resort to violence is typical of a paranoid nation where armed robbery has become so common that even the smallest convenience store has a pistol-packing guard, where taxi drivers lock your doors as soon as you get in, and where the police are feared more than the criminals.

Hugh Levinson is a producer for the BBC Radio 4 series Crossing Continents.

The programme from the Philippines is broadcast at 11am on April 20 and repeated at 8.30pm on April 24.

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