“It’s an unwinnable war for either side at this point.”
How should the next administration handle the 53-year-old communist rebellion?
It’s a question that has perplexed and confounded every administration since the downfall of the Marcos regime in 1986 up to the present.
And every presidential candidate and his running mate in the May 2022 election should ponder and answer the same question, as the armed insurgency has been going on for more than two generations, showing no sign of abating.
We know that martial law was declared primarily to put an end to the armed rebellion that Marcos felt was determined to overthrow his government.
But the martial law regime decided that in order to contain the armed insurgency, it had to round up the top leaders of the opposition, critics and activists and clamp them in jail even without formal charges. Marcos’s security apparatus also arrested some 30,000 people and caused the involuntary disappearance of a number of suspected activists and critics.
The Cory Aquino regime tried to start formal peace talks with the National Democratic Front, the political arm of the CPP-NPA, but the negotiations fell apart as the two sides could not agree on a bilateral ceasefire and the substantive agenda for the duration of the talks.
The succeeding Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Noynoy Aquino administrations also tried to re-start talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF but these also fell through for one reason or another.
But it was Rodrigo Duterte, who, after taking office in 2016, broke with the past administrations and even welcomed the resumption of peace talks with the NDF. After all, as mayor of Davao City, he was known to have played footsies with the local leaders of the rebellion in his turf. He said he considered Jose Ma. Sison, the founder of the re-established CPP, one of his mentors when the latter taught political science at the Lyceum in Manila for a time.
Duterte even asked the mainstream Left to suggest names whom he could appoint to certain government departments, which he did later, thinking that he could convince the rebel movement as a whole to support his government’s commitment to the peace process and give up their arms. But the CPP-NPA-NDF was uncompromising in their stand of fighting while negotiating, and less than a year later, the tenuous detente shattered to pieces as Duterte declared an all-out war against the NPA and unilaterally terminated the peace talks. He claimed that he could not agree to the rebel demand for power-sharing with the communists under a coalition government.
Today, and until the end of the Duterte administration on June 30 next year, expect the NPA rebellion to even intensify their attacks on government forces.
With the peace talks now only an inconsequential footnote in our political history, Duterte created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as the spearhead of an anti-insurgency campaign aimed at a “whole-of-nation approach towards economic development and social progress in the countryside”.
The “whole-of-nation” approach seems to be the same dog with a different collar. It’s an anti-communist crusade with the armed forces taking the lead role in search-and destroy operations against the NPA, but with the old psychological warfare and barangay-level development projects thrown in to sweeten the pot. At its core, it’s a rehash of the Vietnam War-era “hearts and minds” approach to wean the population away from armed struggle against poverty, corruption and injustice.
The role of the NTF-ELCAC is ostensibly to bring the anti-insurgency campaign from the national down to the barangay level by encouraging local NPA commanders and members to surrender their firearms so they can avail of livelihood assistance and return to normal life.
The NTF-ELCAC also brought their anti-communist campaign to Europe to try to convince humanitarian funding agencies to stop giving assistance to NGOs they claimed were fronts of the CPP-NPA.
Here, the task force also launched a high-profile campaign in both traditional and social media to identify those they said were communists and terrorists. The courts followed suit by issuing search and arrest warrants against the latter.
The NTF-ELCAC submitted to the Senate a proposed budget for 2022 worth P28 billion, but some lawmakers claim this is just a form of “pork barrel,” leading the upper chamber to slash its funding to just P4 billion.
So how should presidential bets respond to the issue of armed rebellion?
They can choose to ignore it completely and hope that the NPA guerrillas get tired of fighting and simply slither away from their bases and rejoin the mainstream of society.
They can also deal with it through mainly military means, or by deploying the superiority of the armed forces in terms of manpower, armaments and logistics to defeat the NPA. Alternatively, they can combine military offensives with socio-economic development initiatives at the grassroots level.
Or they can opt for a dual-track approach with peace initiatives and military-civic action on one hand while dealing with the rebels with an iron hand and a ‘take-no-prisoners’ policy if that doesn’t work.
The armed insurgency has been ongoing since 1968. But even as the NPA has declined from an estimated peak strength of around 25,000 guerrillas in the1980s to around 3,000-4,000 at present, according to military estimates, we think it’s an unwinnable war for either side at this point.
On the part of the AFP, we doubt that it can launch large-scale military operations that are likely to lead to civilian casualties and human rights violations that can draw widespread local and international condemnation.
The armed rebellion by the mainstream Left, on the other hand, appears to draw a steady stream of recruits from idealistic student youth as well as workers, farmers, and indigenous peoples. But at the most, the NPA can carry out only company-size hit-and-run military operations and do not have the capability to launch a conventional war and engage the AFP toe-to-toe on the battlefield.
Given all this, how do our presidential bets stack up against the competition?