THE British magazine The Economist’s lead paragraph in its May 3 article on the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was as hilarious as it was so revealing of the situation of the insurgency.
“Last month the guerrilla leaders of the New People’s Army (NPA) ordered its units all over the Philippines to give a 21-gun salute to two fallen heroes. Yet this martial display was diminished by an instruction to give the salute silently, either because the army is out of bullets or for fear a fusillade would alert the police.
The few hundred fighters who duly lined up (and presumably whispered “bang”) are all that remains of a once-formidable Maoist insurgency. The NPA was launched 54 years ago to overthrow an American-backed president, Ferdinand Marcos. It is now on the brink of yielding to his son and successor, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos.”
If I were a “Far Side” cartoonist, a cartoon of that “salute” would have shown the NPA rebels being ordered to fart, instead of firing their guns.
The article was practically an obituary for the CPP and its private army, ridiculously called the New People’s Army. Its main headline was “The Philippines’ once-proud Maoist insurgents are out of ammo.” It had two subheads: “The revolution is over” and a more scathing one: “The New People’s Army is a relic of all sorts of political stupidity.”
The Economist article was actually brief, as if the magazine didn’t want to use more space for something that was a “relic.” It is a succinct summary of the rise and fall of this scourge on the nation:
“At its strongest, the NPA, the armed wing of the shadowy Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), had an estimated 25,000 fighters. It threatened American troops stationed in the Philippines during the Cold War. It was cited by Marcos to justify his long and increasingly tyrannical rule. Yet after he was toppled by a popular uprising in 1986, in which the guerrillas played no part, the restoration of democracy and faster economic growth made armed revolution less appealing to young Filipinos. As the NPA’s ranks dwindled, its leaders became increasingly lost in arcane ideological debate (leading to important revisions, such as the purgative “Second Great Rectification Movement” of the 1990s). Their fighters meanwhile turned to extorting “revolutionary taxes” from local firms.
Despite the group’s manifest unseriousness, America paid it another compliment in 2002. In search of adversaries for its global war on terror, it branded as terrorists the Communist Party, their extortionist guerrillas, and groups of Filipino jihadists and Islamist separatists. The NPA gravely threatened reprisals against American targets. But this last gasp of notoriety did not arrest the Maoists’ decline.
Following a rout of the jihadists and a negotiated end to the Islamist separatist movement, the NPA is now considered the Philippines’ last internal security threat. But Bongbong Marcos need not worry overly. The group is estimated to have about 2,000 fighters and no surviving national leader. The CPP’s aged founder, Joma Sison, died in exile last December. The party’s other foremost leaders, Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma Austria, were the subject of last month’s silent salute. The government says they were killed at sea when their boat blew up during a chase with the armed forces. The guerrillas claim the government murdered them and blew up their corpses. Either way, the revolution didn’t work out.”
Once romanticized by foreign media, there is now a rush to write the Reds’ obituary. A May 26 article in the news website Asian Sentinel — which appears to be getting traction as a reliable news source and analysis for the region — was titled “Communists Crumbling in the Philippines.” It was written by Michael Hart, who has researched for the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Action on Armed Violence. Hart provides more detailed information on the Reds’ last gasps.
Excerpts from Hart’s article:
“According to the Philippine military, the NPA’s days are numbered. Just before Sison’s passing, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that only 24 of 89 guerrilla fronts remained active nationwide, with the group’s strength having reduced from 4,000 rebels in recent years to 2,112. It is estimated that just 1,800 firearms remain in its arsenal. And now, with no figurehead having emerged to replace Sison, the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has the NPA in its sights, four decades after his father’s failed quest to end the insurgency under martial law.
The military has been keen to draw attention to the NPA’s struggles. The Armed Forces chief in the Visayas, covering the Philippines’ central belt of provinces, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, has said the NPA is ‘drastically degraded’ in the region. In the Eastern Visayas, the NPA is leaderless after losing four key commanders over the past year, and the AFP claims ‘no one is giving [the rebels] instructions.’ According to the AFP, only two NPA fronts remain in the region, with around 200 fighters each. Most are thought to be hiding out in the mountains of Samar and largely refrain from attacking soldiers for fear it will expose their positions. Earlier this month, Arevalo said the remaining rebels in the Eastern Visayas were ‘tired due to constant movement [between camps] and have no safe place to hide.’
In the Western Visayas, the AFP claims NPA rebels are increasingly demoralized and have ‘no clear operational direction’ after their commander Rogelio Posadas — responsible for operations in Bohol, Cebu, Siquijor and Negros Island — was killed in an encounter with government soldiers. Troops have taken control of many remote villages previously under NPA influence, stymying rebel recruitment.
In the NPA stronghold of Eastern Mindanao, the trajectory is similar. Its most senior commander in the region, Menandro Villanueva, was killed by troops in Davao de Oro last year. The AFP says there are now just four active rebel fronts left in the region, down from 32 in 2017, when the AFP stepped up its campaign after peace talks with the CPP faltered under former president Rodrigo Duterte. The NPA’s losses have led his successor Marcos to declare that ‘half-a-century’s fight with insurgents is coming to an end.’ The National Security Council (NSC) declared ‘strategic victory’ over the NPA in April, and said it foresees the AFP securing ‘total victory’ against the rebels within two years.
The government credits the degrading of the NPA not only to AFP offensives, but also to the creation of a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) in 2018. This body has engaged NPA commanders at the local level, and encouraged insurgents to lay down their arms in return for livelihood support under the Enhanced-Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-Clip). It has also directed development funds to rebel-influenced villages to blunt its rural support base.
The NTF-Elcac was established by Duterte after he ended national-level negotiations with the CPP leadership. Marcos has rejected resuming talks and persisted with Duterte’s strategy. Arguably, after Sison’s death and the demise of the Tiamzons, there is now nobody left to negotiate with. Manila hopes the symbolic blow of Sison’s death, and the resulting hit to morale, will lead more NPA rebels to surrender. There is controversy over exactly how many have surrendered to date — with the task force accused of listing NPA supporters and the family members of ex-rebels as former combatants.
The CPP has acknowledged suffering setbacks but denies the extent of losses from its ranks. It also rejects claims by the AFP that few rebel fronts remain active. Is the NPA really on the brink of defeat after Sison’s death, as the AFP claims? Looking at rebel activity in 2023 indicates that it is struggling.
From January 1 to May 23, the NPA has been active in 29 provinces, with at least 70 armed clashes and violent incidents involving the group. This indicates a rebel presence across wide swaths of the NPA’s historical areas of operation, from northern Luzon to Mindanao. The NPA is, however, firmly on the retreat, with proactive roadside ambushes and bombings an increasingly rare occurrence. This is borne out by the casualty figures from clashes so far this year, with 68 NPA rebels killed compared to just six AFP troops.* Most clashes were initiated by government soldiers, either while encountering rebels on routine patrol or during targeted intelligence-based operations.
NPA activity has remained prevalent in Eastern Mindanao, Samar, Masbate and Negros island, indicating that the group is still holding out in some of its traditional strongholds. Yet even in these areas, the rebels’ influence over residents has significantly reduced as the NPA lacks the capacity it once had to coerce entire rural communities into compliance. Arson attacks on firms that refuse to bow to extortion demands, and raids on businesses to steal weapons from private security guards, are becoming much less frequent, limiting the rebels’ ability to sustain and finance their campaign.”
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