PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s invitation to hundreds of Mindanao-based former members and supporters of the communist New People’s Army to dine with him in Malacañang and tour Manila drew mixed reactions, depending on which side of the political spectrum one belongs. The president’s invitation follows the government’s intensification of military operations against the NPA and the subsequent wave of NPA fighters and supporters surrendering and pledging allegiance to the Philippine flag. Media spectacle and propaganda offensive, scoffed the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and warned that Mr. Duterte was becoming the NPA’s No. 1 recruiter.
If some of these surrenderees are fake or “ghost surrenderees,” as claimed by the CPP, it probably wouldn’t be the first time that the government presented such. As the saying goes, truth is the first casualty in war. The propaganda battle is part and parcel of insurgency and counterinsurgency. But this is not about determining the veracity of any specific claim of the government in relation to the wave of NPA surrenders. Let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt.
That the bulk of persons who surrender to the authorities are supporters and not fighters, makes sense (though “surrender” may be an inaccurate term). Without its mass base, without the supporters, the NPA cannot survive. The NPA is the armed wing of the CPP. However, it doesn’t exist simply to wage a war but to—together with the united front (sectoral and political organizations)—undermine and defeat the existing government, removing the country from the latter’s influence and control, one village and one sector at a time. “Generally, NPA units do not wage tactical operations in areas where they do not have a supportive operational environment. Political work precedes and lays the groundwork for the following military activities,” wrote Police Colonel Miguel Coronel in his 1991 book Pro-Democracy People’s War.
In other words, before the armed fighters arrive, their “advance party” has organized and educated the people who now become the mass base.
Coercion and intimidation are of course also often factors why local folks sometimes aid the NPA. The government, unfortunately, is not able to protect and secure every village, farm, business and individual from NPA harassment and extortion.
Security isn’t the only basic service that the government fails to provide adequately. NPA members who recently surrendered in the province of Sultan Kudarat revealed the simple reasons why they joined: The NPA promised to provide fertilizers, seedlings and education, a surrendered rebel explained, adding: “We never saw school in the mountains” (Philippine News Agency, January 9, 2018). Another surrenderee, together with fellow members of his tribe and the NPA, reclaimed a piece of tribal ancestral land that is being leased by a big corporation. The lease expired years ago but members of the tribe who wanted to till the land rather than renew the lease, did not receive any help from concerned government agencies to pursue their aspiration. Agricultural inputs, education, and return of ancestral land can hardly be called unreasonable wishes.
These rebels are what Coronel calls “grievance guerillas.” He explains that the officers of the NPA are CPP members and highly trained, committed and disciplined, while the majority of fighters are “grievance guerillas” who are “propelled to seek redress from grievances through the NPA.” In other words: for as long as there are grievances, the NPA will never run out of prospective recruits.
While military operations and higher visibility of troops in the hinterlands put pressure on the NPA and civil-military outreach is an effective tool in convincing those sympathetic to the communist insurgency to withdraw support, the only way to stop recruitment for good is to remove the grievance causes: injustices, most often landgrabbing, must be addressed, and basic services – education, roads, health care, agricultural inputs and post-harvest facilities – must be made available.
Addressing the legitimate issues that have driven thousands of Filipinos to join and support the CPP-NPA is the only way to end insurgency for good. The military may be successful in neutralizing the insurgents but civilian government has generally not been doing enough to address poverty in the countryside. Support programs such as livelihood assistance and skills training targeting individual surrenderees have limited impact compared to bringing—and sustaining—development initiatives and basic services to under-serviced rural communities.
Coronel reminds us that “the central task of any revolutionary movement is to seize political power.” The peace talks with, and the political accommodation extended to, the communists in the early days of the Duterte administration will not bring peace. But neither will all-out war on the CPP-NPA. It is the ideology and how it resonates with the real-life struggles and suffering of millions of Filipinos that keep the communist insurgency going. The war that must be waged and won is the war on poverty and injustice.