Communist war in the Philippines gains momentum; government maintains upper hand for now

The war in the Philippines by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), has heated up over the last many months, and more violence is to come unless the NPA suffers a death blow, or unless on/off again peace talks actually achieve traction. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have widened patrols, dragnets, and investigations targeting key CPP and NPA personnel. The CPP has increased its political activism, and the NPA has intensified attacks on civilian and military/police targets.

CPP-NPA origins

The current communist movement in the Philippines has its origins in the Hukbalahap (aka, “Huks”) communist rebellion in the post WW II era. This movement was defeated, but chronic socio-economic problems and government illegitimacy issues persisted (pockets of illegitimacy, not total illegitimacy), and a communist resurgence, via the CPP, happened in 1968. The NPA formed in 1969. In the 1980s, the CPP had a peak of 30,000 members, and the NPA had up to 26,000 fighters.

The CPP-NPA’s longstanding mission has been to: a) overthrow the Philippine government, b) establish a communist state, and, c) purge the country of “imperialist” U.S. influence. Their method is Maoist people’s war where the population is mobilized as both a political juggernaut and an army against the state. The CPP-NPA war has killed as many as 40,000 people since it began.

CPP-NPA current status

Because of long running government counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and reduced popular support, the NPA currently has an estimated 3,000 – 5,000 fighters, says various reporting. The movement remain tenacious, however. The CPP has infiltrated the government and society, and it has some degree of support because of the previously mentioned socio-economic and government legitimacy issues, including widespread corruption.

ABS-CBN News reports that in 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte concluded that the CPP-NPA had abandoned its most radical goals, and was instead attempting to form a coalition government with Manila, which caused him to cease peace talks in November. Power sharing with a Maoist political party touting Maoist goals is unacceptable to the president and his government. Indicators of this strategic shift resulted from the CPP-NPA proposing domestic reform programs such as their Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER) plan while also continuing to bomb, assassinate, raid, and torch businesses, and also pressure the government to release hundreds of CPP-NPA prisoners.

This is a far place from when President Duterte first took office. At that time, he not only sought peace talks with the communists, he offered some to serve in his cabinet. A left leaning populist, he is roughly paralleling the policies of former President Ramon Magsaysay (1953-57) who also served as Secretary of Defense (1950-53). Aside from dramatically increasing the efficiency and professionalism of the AFP’s COIN against the communists, Magsaysay also tackled government corruption and poverty, thereby increasing government legitimacy in the process. As a result of all these factors, the Huks were defeated.

GMA News says that one of the initial keys to CPP-NPA peace talks was the personal relationship Duterte had with CPP founder Joma Sison, now living in the Netherlands. Sison was one of Duterte’s college professors and a mentor. Because of continued CPP-NPA operations, however, particularly during the ISIS-related Maute Group’s bloody seizure and occupation of Marawi, their relationship deteriorated, and they now despise each other and trade verbal barbs in the press. The specter of their public feud is made more sensational by Duterte’s frequently outlandish verbal style.

Recent political maneuvering

Because of the communists’ violent operations, says the Inquirer, Duterte on 5 December 2017 issued a decree labeling the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization. While the Supreme Court has to make it official, the decree will be acted on, nevertheless.

Rappler reports that the terrorist designation came after the government asserted the communists had committed 385 atrocities in Mindanao, which resulted in 41 military and security personnel killed, along with 23 civilians, including a 4-month-old infant. The government, moreover, cited 59 arson incidents in Mindanao alone, resulting in $38.4 million in damages.

Then on 9 March 2018, says Thompson Reuters, Manila publicly released a list of 600 alleged NPA terrorists, a bold move meant to apply heavy political and military pressure on the CPP-NPA.

On 21 April, Duterte offered the NPA a 60-day window to begin peace talks, and on 8 May, backchannel talks between the two sides began in Europe, says Telesur. According to Duterte, his “fundamental basic duty is to see to it that the country is peaceful.”

Recent select NPA operations and initiatives

The NPA has been active for well over a decade, as demonstrated by its raids on major commercial mining operations in October 2011, so its capacity for violence is not new. Its increased operational tempo, tenacity, and political warfare rhetoric have dramatically increased since 2017, however. Below are select examples:

  • 19 July 2017, the NPA ambushed a convoy of the Presidential Security Group, killing one and wounding five.
  • 4 February 2018, Sison claimed, “The NPA in 17 regions has actually the capacity of knocking out at least one AFP soldier every day per region. That eliminates at least 510 enemy troops or some five companies every month.That translates to the elimination of some 60 companies or 20 basic battalions every year.”
  • 22 March 2018, the AFP confirmed that the NPA’s “Sparu” assassination squads had been reactivated. Sparu stands for Special Partisan Unit, and they have been referred to by some defense commentators as “sparrow” squads. Philippine National Police Chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said most of the units are operating in Northern Mindanao, Davao Region, Soccsksargen, and Caraga. There were 56 Sparu-related incidents in 2017 and nine as of spring 2018.
  • 26 April 2018, in Lupon, Davao Oriental, the NPA’s 6th Pulang Bagani Company ambushed a platoon of the Philippine Army’s 28th Infantry Battalion. The NPA said after the ambush, the Army retaliated by firing artillery at civilian farms and houses in San Isidro and Likop in Mati City.
  • 28 April 2018, the NPA carried out three operations: 1) in Barangay Marayag in Lupon town, the NPA’s Comval-Davao Gulf Sub-Regional Command attacked the Army’s 28th Infantry Battalion; 2) in Barangay Marayag in Lupon town, it attacked the army’s 72nd Infantry Battalion, and, 3) on the Compostela Valley-Davao Oriental national highway, it set up a mobile checkpoint looking for anti-communist elements.
  • 7 May 2018, a 50-person NPA raiding force of the Mount Cansermon Command in Kabankalan City torched a backhoe and other heavy equipment, plus a bunkhouse at a dam project of the National Irrigation Administration.
  • 10 May 2018, a five-man team of the NPA’s Leonardo Panaligan Command set fire to a six-wheeler truck at Barangay Magallon Cadre in Moises Padilla, Negros Occidental, as farm workers were unloading fertilizer from it. Damage was estimated at $14,995.31.
  • 11 May 2018, the NPA assassinated Roland Gonzales of Sitio Balunggay in Barangay Guinpana-an, Moises Padilla town. The NPA accused Gonzales of being associated with the assassination of a local communist leader, Jerry Turga. The Sun Star says that there have been 26 political killings in Negros in 2018.
  • 21 May 2018 an IED exploded in Sitio Patawon, Barangay Cabuyuan, Mabini, Compostela Valley, wounding five Philippine Army troopers of the 46th Infantry Battalion. They were on a blocking force mission in support of a larger sweep operation when the explosion happened. The army suspected the culprits were the NPA’s Milisyang Bayan, Guerilla Front 2, Sub-Regional Committee 2 of the greater Southern Mindanao Regional Committee.
  • 30 May 2018, 26 fighters from the NPA’s Pulang Bagani Command 8 raided Adam’s Haven Mountain Resort in Barangay Ompao in the town of Tarragona and torched equipment and infrastructure there, including a power generator, an electric steel cutter, and a multicab vehicle. The NPA said the owner had failed to pay them “taxes,” which are actually extortion fees. Damage done amounted to $11,246.48.
  • 1 June 2018, an assassination team of the NPA’s Pulang Bagani Company 4 and Section Committee 3 shot and killed Datu Laurelio Tilacan while traveling to his farm in Bollukan village in Laak town, Compostela Valley province. Tilacan was of the Ata-Manobo tribe. Authorities believe he and other assassinated Ata-Manobo tribal leaders have been murdered because they would not join/support the NPA.

Recent select government operations and initiatives

In February 2017, The Inquirer reported that Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared “all-out war” against the NPA: “They are there to terrorize people to get money. That’s extortion; we will hunt them down.” On 17 October 2017, AFP commanding general Eduardo Año stated in a speech that the government aimed to completely eliminate the CPP-NPA by the end of 2018. By January 2018, this goal was adjusted to reducing their numbers by half within the year. Below are select operations that represent the government’s counter-NPA efforts.

  • 29 November 2017, government forces received intelligence on an NPA convoy moving through the Nasugbu area of Batangas, and they set up checkpoints to capture their quarry. The communists opened fire at a checkpoint between the villages of Aga and Kaylaway on the Tagaytay-Nasugbu highway. This resulted in a several-kilometer chase and rolling shootout, which ended with 15 fighters and high-level leadership killed – specifically, officials of the NPA’s Western Batangas Command.
  • 31 January 2018, as a result of a surveillance mission, Philippine forces captured a top CPP official, 69-year old Rafael Baylosis, and an aide in Quezon City, Manila. Both were reportedly armed with .45 cal. pistols. Baylosis was on secondment to the communist front group, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, as a consultant and lawyer at the time of capture, and his detention sent shockwaves through the communist movement.
  • 6 March 2018, 188 NPA rebels of the Far South Mindanao Region, including its deputy secretary and spokesman, attended a surrender ceremony at AFP Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. These and other NPA surrenders turned themselves in to the government in January and February. These followed over 500 NPA personnel who had earlier surrendered in several batches.
  • 9 March 2018, the government released its 600-person NPA terror list.
  • 7 April 2018, two ex-NPA fighters joined the Philippine Army’s 1st Infantry Division (aka, Team Tabak, or Tabak Division), which specializes in COIN and counter terror in Western Mindanao. The ex-NPA troopers are part of a class of 736 new, diverse soldiers of Christian and Muslim faiths, plus several ethnic groups such as persons from the Subanen tribe native to the Zamboanga Peninsula.
  • 15 April 2018, acting on local intelligence, troopers of the Philippines Army’s 75th Infantry Battalion raided an NPA camp in Barangay Bunawan Brook in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur, and recovered the following: a rifle grenade, an M-14 rifle, an AK-47, ammunition, six IEDs, six blasting caps, three radio batteries, 315 pieces (presumably “chubs” or “sticks”) of Super Dyne explosives (a rock cutting compound), 450 meters of electrical wire, a multi-media projector, a generator, 28 gallons of rice, medical supplies, and military uniforms.
  • 20 May 2018, the Sun Star reported that Director General Oscar Albayalde, Chief of the PNP, ordered police in Negros Occidental to increase physical security of infrastructure and vulnerable civilian areas to protect against NPA attacks throughout the province. Police are also slated to undergo paramilitary training to upgrade their combat capabilities. Chief Albayalde also told police to widen their community outreach programs and engage in dialogue with the CPP-NPA and its supporters to reduce violence in the area.
  • 30 May 2018, based on local intelligence, the Philippine Army’s 15th Infantry Battalion captured senior NPA tax collector, Bobby Pedro of the Armando Sumayang Jr. Command, in Ilog, Negros Occidental. He had in his possession a 9mm pistol, propaganda documents, cash, and a cell phone.
  • 31 May 2018, police arrested NPA finance committee chief of Mindanao (Komisyon Mindanao), Nerita de Castro, in the Emenville Subdivision, Ambago village. She was also Acting Secretary of the Regional White Area Committee of North Eastern Mindanao. De Castro recently took over the post on the heels of the arrest of her predecessor, Leonida Guao, on 2 February 2018. Lieutenant General Benjamin Madrigal, Jr., AFP Eastern Mindanao Command Chief, said of the arrest: “The Command commends the inter-agency effort and the cooperation of the communities. Indeed, we can go after high ranking personalities of the NPA terrorist group and accomplish our tasks easily if we continue to put our acts together. This accomplishment will have an impact in our effort to bring peace in our communities.”

There are six takeaways here. First – and this has been the case for many years – the NPA has highly effective tactical and operational prowess. It can execute full spectrum insurgent and terror operations such as bombings, ambushes, raids, and assassinations. It has excellent logistics, communications, intelligence, and financial abilities. As evidenced by its sophisticated command structure, the NPA is highly organized and has wide geographic reach throughout the Philippines. It is a force to be reckoned with.

Second, having said the above, because of the multitude of senior leadership arrested, the NPA is suffering badly from a lack of operational security. This could be from compromised communications channels, or deteriorating relations with the local populace, or government informants in the midst of their ranks, or all of these. As a consequence, and also because of point three below, the CPP-NPA threat to eliminate “20 basic battalions every year” is highly unlikely to happen.

Third, based on their successful capture of multiple NPA top officials and effectual military operations, Philippine security forces have dramatically increased the effectiveness of their intelligence and Direct Action capabilities. The many impressive government operations mentioned above would not have been possible, otherwise. The government goal of reducing NPA numbers by half in 2018 is a tall order, but not impossible.

Fourth, because Police Chief Albayalde has urged upgrades in PNP capabilities and community outreach, and because Lieutenant General Madrigal has stated that the government’s inter-agency effort and local communities needed to continue cooperating – and “get their acts together” – the indication is that the government’s COIN against the CPP-NPA is not a solid, countrywide program, yet. The inference is that this process needs to expand and mature to show continued and amplified results.

Fifth, because both the Philippine government and the CPP-NPA have decisively declared that war is the method they will use to settle their differences, and because both sides have committed forces in the field and aggressively engaged in combat, this war will continue into the foreseeable future, unless peace talks actually happen and achieve traction.

Sixth, because the Philippine government has to date committed effective COIN methods and resources to this war, and because it appears to be improving these methods and resources, the ever-shrinking communists’ ranks puts the CPP-NPA at a disadvantage. Adding to this, while President Duterte appears outlandish to many in the international community, his Magsaysay-type programs and attitude – minus Magsaysay’s polish – have earned him tremendous political capital, domestically. Through this, he is able to counter some of the ideological planks of the CPP-NPA movement. The surrender of hundreds of NPA fighters and supporters adds credence to this supposition. The communist movement is feeling extreme pressure.

What then, happens next? Several things might happen. As stated, the war could easily continue on its current track for the near and intermediate term. While the government has the upper hand, the NPA does have several thousand fighters, and it has its high capabilities and excellent organization. Government victory is not assured.

On the other hand, if the CPP-NPA continues to be pressured by the government’s COIN operations, it might begin to reduce its focus on combat and start to lean toward political methods, as the CASER program and related issues suggest.

At the same time, if a more radical cell of the CPP-NPA becomes incensed by these developments, such a cell could launch dramatic attacks on the government and its security forces in non-combat areas. It could also move more toward terrorism and seek to punish the Philippine population with terror attacks on civilian targets, possibly even tourist targets. While this would be an extreme deviation from current NPA targeting, the arson operation against the Adam’s Haven Mountain Resort in Barangay Ompao demonstrates, at the very least, that the NPA has tourist site targeting proclivities. And it does kill civilians.

Peace talks, then, would likely have a welcome cooling effect on the Philippines’ intensifying communist war.

Sources and further reading:

Albayalde urges cops to strengthen target hardening measures vs atrocities,” Sun Star, 20 May 2018.

NPA admits La Castellana shooting,” Sun Star, 17 May 2018.

Philippines’ Duterte Solicits New Peace Talks With NPA Rebels,” Telesur, 21 April, 2018.

Philippines seeks ‘terrorist’ tag for 600 alleged communist guerrillas,” Thompson Reuters, 9 March 2018.

Declare CPP-NPA as terrorist group, gov’t asks court,” The Inquirer, 21 February 2018.

High-Ranking Communist Rebel Is Arrested in Philippines,” New York Times, 1 February 2018.

Duterte says peace talks with Reds fell through due to ‘coalition gov’t’,” ABS CBN News, 24 November 2017.

Suspected NPA rebels kill CAFGU member, abduct 2 cops,” Rappler, 14 November 2017.

NPA rebels burn heavy equipment in Cagayan,” Rappler, 7 October 2017.

Proud mentor Joma Sison says Duterte offering best chance at peace,” GMA News, 22 August 2016.

William C. Moore, The Hukbalahap Insurgency, 1948-1954: An Analysis of the Roles, Missions and Doctrine of the Philippine Military Forces, Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, 1 March 1971.

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