The insurgency revisited

"The communist rebellion in the country did not start with the founding of the New People’s Army in March 1969."


It seems that the reach of the Manila Standard extends well beyond those readers who read the hard copy daily, as many more get their fill of the news through social media. Last week, I received an e-mail from Lt. Col. Sir Byron de Ocampo (yes, the “Sir” is part of his first name, not a title of respect), commander of the newly established Civilian-Military Operations Group of the Philippine Air Force saying that they had read in social media three of my columns on internal security threats, and asked whether I would be available to talk on the topic before their personnel. I replied that yes, I would be glad to, and last Wednesday, I found myself at Villamor Air Base facing an audience of about 40 men and women working on bringing the PAF closer to the people through civic action.

The main focus of my talk was the communist insurgency. I pointed out from the get-go that the communist rebellion in the country did not start with the founding of the New People’s Army in March 1969—they celebrated their 50th year five months ago—but with the establishment of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas way back in the 1930s, during the American colonial period. The PKP and its armed wing known as the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Hukbalahap helped Filipino and American forces in fighting the Japanese occupation. After the Second World War, the PKP and the Huks continued to pursue their goal of overthrowing the government to establish a socialist society, but battlefield losses, internal weaknesses as well as diminished mass support led to their eventual decline in the 1950s and 1960s.

It was amid this decline that Jose Ma. Sison reestablished the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968 based on Marxist-Leninist ideology and a few months later, the NPA. To this day, the CPP, NPA and their political arm, the National Democratic Front, make no secret of their ultimate goal of seizure of state power mainly through armed struggle, with legal and parliamentary struggle in the cities focusing on issues such as low workers’ wages, high prices, agrarian reform, and human rights, among others.

The NPA grew in numbers during the period of martial law from 1973 to the EDSA People Power uprising in February 1996 that restored democracy. Some estimates of NPA strength at that time even placed it at more than 20,000 regulars. But I think this was a bloated figure as the NPA was not able to launch attacks on a large scale, meaning those involving battalion-size formations, during the period, only hit-and-run raids on isolated government outposts.

The membership and influence of the CPP-NPA-NDF gradually declined with the restoration of democracy in 1986. Part of the decline may be traced to the split in the movement arising from differences in ideology and strategy and tactics. Another source of disenchantment and disaffection within the underground was the internal cleansing launched by the CPP-NPA in the 1980s and 1990s to ferret out so-called deep-penetration agents within its ranks. It is believed that hundreds and perhaps even a few thousands of suspected DPAs were summarily executed by the NPA in what the CPP leadership later claimed was an aberration that had been “rectified” and those responsible had been meted the appropriate disciplinary action. But many survivors of the purge claimed innocence and left the movement for good.

The NPA observed its 50th anniversary last March 29. Not surprisingly, in the run-up to this milestone, NPA rebels launched so-called “tactical offensives” in various areas throughout the country. In light of this, President Duterte warned that the fight against the NPA would soon turn bloody: “They are just plain bandits and that should be the way to treat them,” referring to his order to shoot the rebels. Earlier, he had slammed the door shut to any further peace negotiations with the NDF.

The military estimates current NPA strength at only between 3,000 to 4,000 guerrillas spread out in a few regions, notably Bicol, Negros provinces, Panay and Samar in Central Visayas, and several provinces in Mindanao.

Ranged against the ragtag Maoist guerrillas employing mainly hit-and-run tactics are no less than the total manpower complement of the armed forces and their superior firepower, including air support.

But after 50 years of waging armed revolution, the CPP and the NPA appear no closer to achieving their ultimate goal of seizure of political power through the barrel of the gun. Every year, on their anniversary, the CPP issues a statement giving themselves a pat on the back for surviving despite great odds, and claiming the objective conditions for armed revolution have never been better. But that’s what they’ve been saying year after year since 1968.

The only remaining Maoist rebellion in the world has not been defeated by superior government firepower because they can still draw recruits from the countryside where there is widespread poverty. But the NPA has been unable to go beyond the strategic defensive stage of its revolutionary project, quite possibly because of a flawed strategy derived lock, stock and barrel from the Chinese model.

On the other hand, the government has also failed to crush the communist rebellion after 50 years despite pouring massive resources in the counter-insurgency campaign since the 1970s.

With the collapse of the political negotiations between the Duterte administration and the NDF last year, we now witness the resumption of all-out war between the two sides, and the very grim prospect of more violence and bloodshed in the years ahead.

More on this next week.

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Topics: Ernesto Hilario , Philippine Air Force , PAF , Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas , Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon , Hukbalahap , Jose Ma. Sison , Communist Party of the Philippines , New People's Army , National Democratic Front , CPP-NPA-NDF
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