Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Understanding Mindanao's Communists

Once-moribund New People’s Army poses a new and unexpected challenge

In just a week, Philippine communist guerrillas scored major propaganda coups for unprecedented simultaneous raids on three mining companies in Surigao del Sur, long a hotbed of insurgency in Mindanao that is unrelated to the long-running Moro conflict. These raids were followed by the release of ‘prisoners of war’ last Saturday -- Mayor Henry Dano of Linging, Surigao del Sur and his two military escorts, as well as of four jail guards, who had been held captive for at least two months by separate New People’s Army guerrilla units.

That these events happened just as a national coalition of leftist parties, the National Democratic Front, and the Philippine government are about to resume peace negotiations in Oslo, Norway next week serves notice that there is one other lingering and resilient rebellion in Mindanao – one headed by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA and its political umbrella, the NDF. The coordinated rebel activities underscore not only the gravity of the other Mindanao conflict but also highlight the apparent helplessness of the Philippine military.

Mindanao, a land of sharp contrasts and contradiction despite being endowed with rich mineral and natural resources, has never lived in long stretches of peace throughout its recorded history. The Moro people have resisted invaders and colonizers for centuries to protect and later reclaim their lands. The communists have made Mindanao their laboratory of everything to do with Mao Zedong’s protracted people’s war. It is widely acknowledged that half of the armed strength of the NPA is in Mindanao, perhaps even slightly more.

It would be easy to dismiss the Communist Party of the Philippines together with its military wing, the NPA, in Mindanao as a spent force. The island became a failed experiment of the rebels’ brief but disastrous folly in the turbulent 1980s, when the darkest period of the communist movement in the country took place. Hundreds of cadres, activists and sympathizers perished in the infamous anti-Zombie campaign purportedly aimed at defeating the CPP-NPA with deep penetration agents from the government. The Mindanao leadership of the Underground Left later admitted it was an time of grave “tactical, organization and ideological errors.”

The communists saw their membership and armed strength decline significantly in the aftermath of the deadly anti-DPA campaign. It even worsened when an ideological debate wrought havoc within the rebel organization, further decimating its ranks. By the mid-1990s, the military proclaimed it has reduced the communist movement to irrelevance. It took the communists another 10 years or so to again make their presence felt. But if the Surigao attacks and almost simultaneous releases of ‘POWs are any indication, then the communists are back with a vengeance.

At the height of the Marcos dictatorship, the military said armed NPA regulars numbered almost 25,000 – a figure the communist movement neither confirmed nor denied. Based on the number of guerrilla fronts, then around 72 nationwide, the estimate was grossly overblown, however. There could have been no more than 12,000 armed NPA regulars all over the country even at the peak of the rebellion.

Today, the communists claim they are operating in 81 provinces with over 120 guerrilla fronts. Thirty two of these fronts are found in Mindanao, according to Mindanao rebel spokesman Ka Oris, a.k.a Jorge Madlos. The Philippine military however believes there are only 23 fronts in Mindanao, more than half of them the Davao region with a combined strength of 800 armed regulars. Even using the military figure, this is still significant compared to the mid-1980s when there were only 21 fronts scattered all over the island.

Recent activities in the Davao and Caraga regions are clear indications that the rebel movement either has regained its lost strength or has grown even stronger than it was 25 years ago. The fact that the rebels in Surigao can mobilize a battalion of armed regulars in a coordinated offensive also shows that their armed capabilities have also improved as they recover from almost a decade of setbacks and decline. This is not to romanticize the rebels, but never in the history of the insurgency were they able to launch simultaneous attacks on the scale seen last week

Vacuum in the cities

While the movement continues to make inroads in the countryside, its cadres have, up to the present, never come close to approximating the strength of its 1980s united front and open mass movement networks. Many were alienated by the divisive ideological debate which came just as the wounds of the anti-Zombie campaign were healing. When the Underground Left began its ‘rectification campaign,’ the regional leaderships of the CPP-NPA in Mindanao pulled its cadres from the cities to undergo ideological renewal. Some were obliged, some given orders, to stay in the guerrilla fronts to help rebuild its army and party organs.

That left a vacuum in the cities and urban centers whose remaining cadres were organizationally and politically challenged to lead the urban mass movement. Except in areas where they found reliable and trusted allies in local government units, the communists have found the cities and towns a head-splitting challenge. The student movement is now in the doldrums and former activists in that ‘80s era could only wish those glory days of student activism would again come alive. The labor movement as well lost much of its strength and the number of unions it led and influenced is now reduced to insignificance – a trend that is today prevalent in the trade union movement in Mindanao.

When the Herrera Law (Republic Act 6715) was passed in 1989, it became a matter of time before the unions were eventually busted. Now, with ‘contractualization’ becoming the norm of labor arrangement, trade unions have lost their strength and bargaining power. Even the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), to which former Senator Ernesto Herrera, author of RA 6715 is a ranking officer, has not been spared.

But weak as they are in the urban centers, the NPA have become a formidable force, some say annoying force, to reckon with in the remote and mountainous areas of Mindanao where government presence is hardly felt and services are virtually non-existent. They have also greatly benefited from successive wars of attrition launched by the government against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf Group as a national security threat at the time they were slowly trying to rebuild their forces.

The modern Mindanao conflict is no longer, and never was, the monopoly of the Moro rebellion. But both conflicts are as real and as problematic as they come.

Thinly spread

The military, while somehow able to shed some of its feared image as the hatchet men of Marcos-era Martial law, are now spread too thin. Some areas have been sacrificed to concentrate on the large formations of rebel forces, both the MILF and the NPA. The Surigao raid occurred 12 days after the 30th Infantry Battalion was pulled out from the area for retraining.

Unlike the MILF, which still has huge encampments and with which the Philippine government has a still operational ceasefire, the CPP-NPA is still the same guerrilla force operating with its own geographical regions.

It requires the Philippine military to deploy its forces farther away from military nerve centers.

Today, half of the 120,000 armed strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is deployed in Mindanao. Half of the AFP units in Mindanao however are solely dedicated to containing the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf – the 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao and the 1st ID based in Zamboanga. This leaves the other army divisions stretched in far larger areas where the communists are operating. There are perhaps 50 Philippine Army battalions in Mindanao, excluding the Philippine Marines and other support units.

Since fluidity is the name of guerrilla warfare, the military is limited in terms of using its vast and superior war materieal advantage over highly mobile NPA units. In the countryside, it is a deadly game of cat and mouse. As one Mindanao local chief executive said, “Certainly there was an element of public relations in the release (the POWs) by the NPA.” The release came just days after the Philippine police and military were embarrassed by the Surigao raids.

If what happened last week on the communist insurgency front was indeed mere propaganda, then the government lost heavily. There is more to these NPA offensives than just public relations, however. That communists were able to do both – the raid and release of their ‘captives’ – with relative ease and without suffering any casualties serves only to highlight how far the communists have regained their lost bearings. Whether these offensives were meant to exact reaction from the Philippine government to release consultants of the National Democratic Front who are now in detention remains to be seen.

By Edwin Espejo who blogs for the Asian Correspondent at Chronicles of Mindanao. Asia Sentinel

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