The Philippines’ Firebrand President Is Caught Between Maoists and His Own Military
A smoldering, 50-year-old insurgency risks reigniting
by ANDREW DOBBS
The longest ceasefire to date in one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts was set to come to an end on Feb. 10, 2017, in the Philippines.
Both sides of the struggle — the Philippine military and the rebel Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army — agreed to the pause in August 2016 after the election of populist Rodrigo Duterte as president.
Little came of the subsequent peace talks, however, and the NPA notified the government that it intended to resume a protracted guerrilla campaign.
In fact, the conflict has already restarted with the NPA declaring itself on a footing of “active defense,” having carried out at least 20 military actions since the beginning of the year. The NPA took at least five Philippine soldiers prisoner — and rebels also clashed with private security forces in the employ of major landowners.
“The NPA has orders to take full initiative and carry-out tactical offensives against the AFP [Philippines National Police], and all armed entities of the reactionary state,” the NPA stated on Feb. 3.
How exactly this conflict will develop remains to be seen, but this conflict is far from new. The Philippines’ Maoist insurgency has lasted more than 50 years and killed more than 43,000 people.
In recent years it has involved guerrilla-style ambushes of government troops, regular firefights between the NPA and the military, kidnappings of soldiers and officials — along with the sabotage of major corporate projects — on the one side and the arrest and killing of rebel leaders on the other.
The CPP, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist rebel group, describes its strategy as a “protracted people’s war.” First developed by Mao, this strategy envisions a long-term struggle between guerrilla forces rooted in rural areas and state forces which the rebels attempt to lure away from the cities.
Once the state forces are exposed, the theory goes, the rebels attack and seize weapons and supplies, thereby growing the size of their army — recruited from the workers and peasants — until shifting to the offensive.
NPA forces have put this philosophy into practice with mixed success over the years, and in April 2016 carried out an “Operation Rice-Seizure” that raided a private warehouse in Valencia City, stealing nearly 1,400 sacks of rice.
Two days before, a Maoist detachment overran a military outpost in Davao City, capturing firearms, ammunition and grenades. A similar operation at a police station in the CPP’s heartland of Eastern Samar the month before netted rifles, laptops and police uniforms.
As for money, besides traditional extortion of landowners and large producers typically involved in exporting for major multinational corporations, the NPA exploiting the 2016 national elections in a unique fundraising scheme.
Candidates who wished to seek office in rebel-dominated areas had to pay the party a permit fee to be allowed to run. Those who tried to campaign without such permits were assassinated, as were candidates who failed to abide by anti-corruption conditions set by the rebels.
Officials are also subject to trials by communist-run People’s Courts that issue death sentences for politicians allegedly involved in bribery and other illicit activities — though police sources claim that the killings are far more arbitrary, and their procedures have been condemned by Human Rights Watch.
“The longstanding failings of the Philippines’ justice system, which permits members of security forces and powerful warlords to commit countless abuses with impunity, have helped to give the NPA’s ‘revolutionary justice’ a measure of credibility in lawless rural areas,” the U.S.-based group stated in a 2012 report.
“But in practice the people’s courts are anything but an independent and impartial tribunal … Their executions are nothing short of cold blooded murder.”
In all, however, the NPA had by 2016 come to a position of equilibrium with the Philippines government, a fact borne out by situations where police were running out of ammo during firefights with the rebels, and where the newly elected Duterte regime felt compelled to seek a unilateral ceasefire even before the communists did.
For the Maoists’ part, they were cautiously optimistic about the new president, leading to their own ceasefire declaration independent of the government.
In fact, Duterte’s political opponents tried to tie him to the CPP-NPA, and he conferred with the CPP’s exiled founder Jose Maria Sison before he ran. Duterte was even at one point a student of Sison’s when the latter was a university professor in the 1960s. These connections seem to have benefited Duterte more than they harmed him politically.
But in the Western media, this curious relationship has been largely overlooked. Far more attention has instead focused on Duterte’s endorsement of widespread vigilante violence against drug dealers and drug users. The CPP opposed these tactics, but of far more consequence to the party — and to Filipino politics at large — is Duterte’s anti-U.S. stance.
Indeed, the U.S. press’ focus on Duterte might have more to do with his push for a foreign policy independent of American influence in the Asia-Pacific, especially in light of long-standing media silence over draconian anti-drug policies in Singapore, Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-allied countries.
Duterte and the CPP-NPA’s shared skepticism of the United States — which not only maintains persistent military operations in the Philippines, but which has never taken responsibility for killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the early 20th century — was grounds for opening a dialogue, but not sufficient for sustaining the ceasefire.
The primary issue was the NPA’s demand that the government release more than 400 CPP-NPA political prisoners as a starting point for negotiations.
Duterte has refused to do so, and now that talks have broken down, he has resorted to arresting negotiators from the CPP-NPA’s international organization, the National Democratic Front for the Philippines.
Further enraging the rebel side was Duterte’s failed promise to pardon certain prisoners in the midst of legal appeals, convincing them to drop their proceedings until after deadlines passed and leaving them with no recourse to argue their cases now that he has changed his mind.
All of this raises the question as to why Duterte would put himself in this position. Clearly his friendliness to the CPP-NPA was not an obstacle to his election and might have actually underscored his popularity. An end to the conflict or even an extended period of peace would be the sort of victory any head of state would be proud of.
Why not find a way to satisfy the rebels at least for a little longer?
The answer may be that Duterte is not in charge of this decision at all, and that military officers are calling the shots here — literally. There is speculation that Duterte might himself be in danger if he were to cross the military on this question.
Left-wing activists in the Philippines see it this way. “The [Department of National Defense] and the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] have ultimately unleashed their characters as the biggest saboteurs and stumbling blocks to peace,” the Peasant Movement of the Philippines stated in February 2017.
“We remind… AFP Chief Eduardo Ano and their fellow blood-thirsty, war mongerers in the Duterte government — every drop of blood spilled in the course of this all-out war would be on your hands and conscience. History will judge you as butchers.”
The rebels has not wasted any time preparing for this conflict to come. The NPA claimed in February that it added around 1,000 new recruits during the ceasefire, a substantial increase if true. On the other side, one of the grievances that helped to spark the end of the ceasefire was the military’s deployment of “peace and development teams” to rebel-sympathetic barrios across the Philippines countryside.
These teams are forward military occupation forces often using public buildings such as day-care centers and compelling farmers to provision soldiers. Their aim is to disrupt support for the CPP-NPA and to, in the words of the rebels, make “community residents human shields against NPA attacks.”
The NPA claims that the teams have been the source of human rights violations and intimidation, while the government claims that the they are delivering social services and much-needed aid.
To be sure, the Philippine military killed hundreds of civilians without trial — many in targeted massacres — from 2001 as part of their counter-insurgency program known as Oplan Bayanihan or “Operation Community,” until the beginning of last year’s peace talks.
While Duterte technically brought Oplan Bayanihan to an end, the new embedding efforts are known as Oplan Kapayapaan, or “Operation Peace,” and rebels and their allies consider it a continuation of the past human rights abuses.
While this is a troubling development and creates both operational challenges for the NPA and the high likelihood of major casualties caused by both sides, the government is in a problematic spot — a significant Catch 22.
So is Duterte.
If he takes on the rebels, he could lose potential supporters, and if the conflict persists or — worse — escalates, he may need the support of the Philippines’ traditional military patron, the United States. This would be politically disastrous for the self-described populist.
But if he capitulates to the communists, he could lose his military support and may be overthrown … or worse.
All of this ultimately works to the rebels’ benefit, and while their numbers are relatively small and their resources few, the larger national political circumstances give them a shot at significant success, such that they might be able to force concessions from the state they’ve warred against for five decades.
Indeed, the National Democratic Front has issued a formal position that it should continue peace talks even while it fights.
“Peace-loving sectors, organizations and personalities must firmly oppose the precipitate decision of… President Duterte to end the (Government)-NDFP peace negotiations,” a statement in the CPP’s newspaper stated.
“The offices of the Negotiating Panel of the NDFP shall remain open to continue to explore the possibility of reopening peace negotiations with the Duterte government.”
It is that hope — not just for an end to the conflict but a “just peace” — that seems especially elusive in the Philippines.