15 June 2018, Communist war in the Philippines gains momentum; government maintains upper hand for now

Jun Fri, 2018

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:

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.

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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