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Is Aquino now the NPA’s ‘biggest recruiter’?

Yes, it seems, just as Ferdinand Marcos was because of his regime’s corruption in the early 1980s. By most indications, the communist New People’s Army has grown in military and political strength since he assumed office in 2010.

The country was given a rude awakening to the NPA’s strength when it ambushed the convoy of Gingoog City Mayor Ruthie Guingona, the former vice president’s wife, and a senator’s mother, wounding her and killing two of her escorts. The NPA’s statement was one of arrogant confidence, an indication that they control the area after the sun sets: “The mayor breached their provisos on the bringing of armed security escorts while on the campaign trail.”

“I promise that in all my power and in all my strength and in the name of the law, those responsible will pay,” Mr. Aquino vowed. A week later three soldiers have been wounded in firefights with the NPA, and a policeman was abducted—for the nth time—in Red bastion Compostela Vallley.

Quite ironically, it is the democratic exercise—the elections in May—which have suddenly unveiled the extent of the NPA’s control of the countryside, as assessed by the Philippine Army itself.

“Candidates in the forthcoming midterm elections are paying between P100,000 and P5 million to buy protection from the NPA,” the Philippine Army’s Maj. Gen. Jose Mabanta said. He disclosed that candidates for governors down to councilors in Western Visayas and parts of Eastern Visayas have paid the so-called “permit-to-campaign” fees to the NPA, which he estimated will earn P150 million this election period. The NPA’s rate schedule: P5 million for those running for governor or congressman; P100,000 for mayor or board member; and P75,000 for vice mayor.

As this paper reported, military spokesman Col. Marcelo Arnulfo Burgos, Jr. said the situation is similar in other areas occupied by the NPA such as in Davao, Caraga Region, Agusan , Surigao, and some parts of Northern Mindanao, including Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental, Cagayan de Oro and Gingoog.

During President Arroyo’s term, her national security officials met once every two months in which the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency presented its assessment whether insurgents and terrorists were gaining in strength or weakening, what policies needed to be implemented. Mr. Aquino has not had such a single intelligence conference, and had relied on Peace Process Adviser Teresita Deles and Political Affairs Adviser Ronald Llamas to update him on the insurgent groups.

“So we really don’t have any idea whether the NPA has grown or not,” an Army colonel told me, “although it is pretty obvious that they have been stepping up their operations.”

In February, the NPA simultaneously attacked the Del Monte and Dole plantations’ main offices, killing two guards, which its spokesman claimed was “to stop their operations that were damaging the environment.” These attacks shocked Mindanao, since even at the peak of the NPA’s strength in the region in the early 1980s, they could never attack the two plantations. Del Monte is just a half-hours’ drive from Malaybalay City in Bukidnon, and an hour form the regional center, Cagayan de Oro City.

One worrying indication of the communists’ strength is that its Eastern Visayas command has the gall – or confidence – to issue an “ultimatum” to political leaders there, practically telling them that they will be killed unless they kowtow to the NPA. This has never been done before.

Last week, “Fr.” Santiago Salas, spokesman of the Eastern Visayas chapter of the communist National Democratic Front “issued a final warning to reactionary die-hards (congressman) Ben Evardone and (his cousin running for governor) Javier Zacate over their counterrevolutionary and anti-people crimes…otherwise they will surely face the full force of revolutionary justice.”

There are several factors that contributed to the growth of the NPA under Aquino.

First, poverty has worsened, based on data released by the National Statistics Coordination Board, pushing the desperate poor to join the ranks of the insurgents. The region where the NPA is strongest is in fact that where the poverty has worsened significantly: Eastern Visayas, where the poor increased from 33.3 of families in 2006 to 37.2 percent in 2012.

Secondly, in contrast to Presidents Estrada and Arroyo’s iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach to the communist insurgency, Aquino’s has been a limp-wristed one. This is even reflected in the title for Aquino’s anti-insurgency plan, “Oplan Bayanihan” (Cooperative Spirit), in contrast to Arroyo’s “Oplan Bantay Laya” (Freedom Vanuguard).

While Oplan Bayanihan in theory seemed a humane, peaceful approach to the insurgency, the ground-level reality is that the military has been defanged, waffling to undertake combat operations against the NPA. It has practically been ordered to focus on community work. “I joined the Army, not the social welfare department,” the army colonel said sarcastically. Because of Oplan Bayanihan, formerly anti-NPA areas have shifted allegiance to the communists, fearing that the military no longer intends to defeat the insurgents in the battlefield.

Worse, Aquino’s peace talks with the rebels—led by the naïve Teresita Deles and human rights lawyer Alex Padilla—has had the effect of tying the military’s hands, and allowed the NPA to expand both militarily and politically with little interference from the armed forces.

And thirdly, Aquino has fit to a T the communists’ decades-old description of the People’s Enemy, a landlord who is a puppet of the “US imperialists”, thereby boosting its credibility. Since he assumed power, the communists have been harping on Aquino’s clan as representative of the exploitative landlord class, stubbornly refusing to put its Hacienda Luisita under land reform, and worse, killing seven workers on strike there in 2004 as arguments that an armed revolution is necessary in the country.

Aquino’s efforts to portray his administration as a corrupt-free one has also lost traction, with the communist paper Ang Bayan in its recent issue for instance claiming:

“The Aquino ruling clique is allowing presidential relatives and cronies to engage in technical smuggling that has resulted in the loss of at least P58 billion in customs revenues for the government since 2010. This is now the most exposed type of corruption under the regime that boasts of being clean and honest.” With the Aquino administration’s obvious pro-US stance—to the extent of antagonizing America’s rival, China—that old communist formula had been given life: “the Aquino-US regime.”