Philippine's New People's Army (NPA)
Philippine's New People's Army (NPA)
"In Philippines, a Threat Revives; Once Nearly Extinct, Communist Rebels Find New Converts"
By: Carlos H. Conde
Date: December 29, 2003
Source: "In Philippines, a Threat Revives; Once Nearly Extinct, Communist Rebels Find New Converts" as published by International Herald Tribune, an English-language newspaper distributed in multiple locations throughout the world.
About the Author: Carlos H. Conde serves as Secretary-General of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and writes from Manila for the International Herald Tribune and New York Times.
In 2002, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and its military arm, the New People's Army (NPA) were formally classified as terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union, with the agreement of the Philippines government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. When this newspaper article appeared the following year, the organization was gaining strength following a decline in its numbers in the 1990s, and was seen as the main security threat within the Philippines.
The group was founded in the late 1960s, when it broke away from the long-established Philippine Communist Party (PKP). Unlike the Moscow-orientated main party, the CPP splinter group followed the doctrines of Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao. They planned a people's revolution originating in rural areas. The group soon adopted armed struggle, and has consistently engaged in guerilla warfare, kidnappings, and killings ever since.
The NPA grew in strength during the 1970s and 1980s, drawing support from the many impoverished rural communities and those dissatisfied with the government, particularly during the years of dictatorship under Ferdinand E. Marcos from 1972 to 1986. It adopted the strategy of working closely with local residents in the Philippine countryside, and supporting those in dispute with central or local government over their loss of land to corporate interests. In many areas the party was able to establish control of local government, and generated finance for its activities through taxation of residents and extortion of payments from local businesses. Weapons were stolen from the Philippine armed forces. Anyone in a position of authority who was seen as a threat to the party, including government and military officials, police officers and community leaders, was targeted for assassination. The Philippine government estimated that 1,203 civilians and 144 officials were killed by the rebels in 1985.
At it's height in the mid-1980s, the CPP was reported to have a membership of 30,000 and the NPA from 10,000 to 15,000 active fighters. The guerrilla army was believed to be active in over two-thirds of the country's provinces, and the National Democratic Front (NDF), the party's political wing, was involved in running local government in up to a quarter of the barangays, the administrative units into which the Philippines is divided.
In response to the activities of the New People's Army, successive governments have retaliated with various counter-insurgency and anti-subversive policies, including the extensive use of military force. The Philippine army was expanded in number from 50,000 to 150,000 in the early 1970s to deal with the NPA as well as the Moslem separatists in the southern Philippines, and government troops have been responsible for many killings, not only of NPA fighters but of numerous civilians accused of collaborating with them. It has often been ordinary villagers who have borne the brunt of the military attacks after the guerrillas have retreated.
When Corazon Aquino became President in 1986, she negotiated a sixty-day ceasefire with the rebels, intended to provide the opportunity for both sides to explore the possibility of a longer-term settlement. However, the rebels and the military were unable to uphold the terms of the ceasefire. It broke down within two months. The negotiation period, when military force against the NPA was at a low level, is thought to have helped the party to expand its involvement in local government. However, there were already internal divisions, particularly regarding the decision to boycott the 1986 election that led to the downfall of Marcos, and active support for the party cause started to fall. By 1992, it was estimated that there were less than 10,000 NPA fighters compared with 25,000 in 1987. Throughout the 1990s, the party fragmented further into a number of competing groups.
Despite this decline, a significant core of active rebels have continued to present a security threat to the various governments which have held office in the Philippines, and in 2004, it was estimated that there were again more than 8,000 active fighters. The NPA themselves claimed to have a presence at this time in around seventy of the country's seventy-nine provinces.
Since the late 1990s, the United States has been conducting joint military exercises with the Philippine government within the country and, since 2002, these have focused on combating terrorism, particularly in the southern Philippines. The U.S. involvement is governed by a Visiting Forces Agreement.
Christopher Suazo looked too fragile and innocent to be in the jungle. But there he was, wearing a pair of torn jogging pants and cradling an M-1 Garand rifle almost as tall as himself. He was only 18 and had managed only three years of schooling when he joined the communists three months ago.
Like many cadres of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Suazo joined the rebellion because of a perceived injustice. In March, his father and uncle, both farmers, were killed by the hired guns of a town mayor who is protected by the military, he said.
The mayor's men later hunted Suazo, thinking that he might seek revenge. Human rights groups have time and again cautioned the government that unless the state's security forces respect human rights and the laws of war, the ranks of the communist rebellion that started here 35 years ago will grow. The rebellion is considered by the Philippine military as the biggest threat to national security.
"They are our utmost security concern at present," said Colonel Daniel Lucero, a military spokesman."We consider them a much bigger threat than the Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the Jemaah Islamiyah," he said.
Since September, Suazo has been moving around in the mountains here, always alert for the enemies who lurk in the jungles below but, he says, happy about his decision to join the revolution. "I can only be safe here with the New People's Army. One day I and my family will have justice," he said.
In the foggy camp high up in the mountains of Compostela Valley Province, in the southern Philippines, the communists go about their business: training cadres in military tactics and martial arts, organizing the residents in the plains, helping peasants on their farms, and studying what some called the "evils of U.S. imperialism."
"The U.S. is a brutal enemy. It will not hesitate to use or kill its own people to justify its acts of aggressions all over the world," a guerrilla leader who uses the nom de guerre Richard told a dozen rebels during a class about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"The U.S. is in cahoots with the Arroyo regime in perpetuating poverty and injustice in this country," Richard added, referring to the Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Along with poverty and injustice here, what the rebels call U.S. imperialism is also fueling the revolution. In the party's "basic party course," the topic requires at least one and a half days of discussion.
"U.S. interventionism is even more blatant nowadays," said Rubi del Mundo, a guerrilla spokeswoman.
"It used to just influence the passing of Philippine laws to benefit the business interests of American companies here. Now, the U.S. is directly involved in counterrevolutionary activities," she said, referring to reports of U.S. military personnel going inside communist territory to gather intelligence.
During the administrations of Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino, the rebels' numbers grew, peaking at more than 25,000 in the mid-80's, according to military estimates.
Because of their growing number, the cadres became overconfident and lax with security and discipline. As a result, military spies penetrated the ranks of the New People's Army. Party officials purged the movement in the late 80's and early 90's, torturing and killing hundreds of their fellow guerrillas suspected of spying for the military.
The purges nearly destroyed the movement. The number of fighters plunged to only a few thousand. The group's guerrilla bases and zones disappeared one after the other. Its popularity among Filipinos plunged.
What saved the communists was a campaign begun by the central committee in 1992 to discipline those behind the purge, in some cases expelling them from the party.
The campaign's main thrust, however, was to bring back to the countryside the guerrillas who had been based in the urban areas.
It worked. The New People's Army, according to the party, now has 128 guerrilla fronts in 8,000 villages, or 20 percent of all villages in the country. The military estimates the rebels' strength at about 10,000.
In many parts of the country, the party functions as the government, providing services such as education, health and basic livelihood in areas the mainstream government cannot reach.
Although the government and the communists have been engaged in peace negotiations since the Aquino administration, little progress has been made. In the meantime, the fighting in the countryside continues. Hardly a week goes by without news of two or three firefights.
The government's response to the growth of the communist movement has mainly been force, often targeting civilians considered sympathetic to the rebels. Extrajudicial killings by the military have became common.
People are perplexed by the rebirth of the communists here in spite of the downfall of communist and socialist states in many parts of the world. But some say it would be a mistake to conclude that this revolution is fueled mainly by the communist ideology.
"There is so much injustice, so much despair in this country that people, particularly the poor and powerless, are naturally drawn to those who they think can protect them," said Representative Joel Virador, a member of Congress who formerly worked for a human rights group.
Lucero, the military spokesman, said checking the growth of the movement had become even more difficult because the rebels operate above ground, through legal organizations. The military had previously tagged some political parties led by former rebels, some of whom are now in Congress, as communist fronts. Two weeks ago, it said communists had infiltrated government agencies, including the Philippine Information Agency.
But the war is still confined to the countryside, fought by guerrillas such as Suazo and Jim, a 27-year-old former seminarian who has been in the mountains since 1996.
"I believe the movement has a clear direction, that its victory is inevitable, that the future is bright," Jim said. "The more I see the suffering of the people, the more I am convinced of the justness of this cause." Jim's wife, his mother, his four siblings and an uncle are also guerrillas. They joined the movement after Jim's father, a union activist, was abducted by the military during the Marcos years. He has never been found.
The Philippines government has played a significant role in fighting terrorism in the region since the attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center in 2001. Following its election to power in 2001, Arroyo's government established an Inter-Agency Task Force Against International Terrorism, intended to coordinate intelligence operations and identify suspected terrorist cells based in the Philippines. In 2002, the government initiated a regional coalition in the fight against terrorism among fellow Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members to facilitate exchange of intelligence information. The Philippines' efforts in fighting terrorism have been rewarded by the U.S. in the form of $92.3 million in military equipment, specifically intended for use in fighting local insurgents as well as in fighting international terrorism.
In 2005, there were reported to be ongoing clashes between government troops and communist rebels. The Arroyo government, however, predicted that the NPA would be wiped out within six to ten years.
Some observers have questioned the classification of the New People's Army as a terrorist group. Although its activities over the years have been characteristic of terrorism, the Philippines government has allegedly retaliated with similar state-sponsored violence and killings.
Some observers have asserted that, over time, the CPP has increasingly moved towards involvement in the democratic political process to achieve its revolutionary aims, and many of the groups associated with the party contested the 2001 elections. However, the NDF pulled out of Norwegian-brokered peace talks scheduled to take place in Oslo in August 2004 in protest of the U.S. and E.U. renewing the classification of the CPP/NPA as terrorist organizations.
The U.S. collaboration with the Philippine government in the fight against terrorism enables it to retain a strong presence in Southeast Asia. This is seen as important by the U.S. due to reported al-Qaeda activities in the region, and particular concerns that the southern Philippines is one of al-Qaeda's operational hubs. The country has two known, significant, militant Isalmist groups that conduct terrorist activities and are thought to be linked with al-Qaeda: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Banlaoi, Rommel C. "The role of Philippine-American relations in the global campaign against terrorism: implications for regional security." Contemporary Southeast Asia. August 1, 2002.
Rivera, Temario C. "Transition pathways and democratic consolidation in post-Marcos Philippines." Contemporary Southeast Asia. December 1, 2002.