Philippines: Evolving Changes

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September 28, 2021: Reporters who cover local violence and crime are finding that fewer and fewer of the violent incidents they report on have anything to do with rebel or Islamic terror groups. For those who have been covering violence for more than a decade, the change has been dramatic and often life-changing. That’s because journalists who were too detailed in their reporting on rebel or Islamic terrorist activity were often attacked and even killed to eliminate the embarrassingly accurate reports of what these outlaws were actually up to.

Most of the political violence came from communists, who had been around but not very active before World War II, but became a major part of the armed opposition fighting the brutal 1942-45 Japanese occupation. After independence in 1946 leftist rebels continued fighting, trying to establish a communist dictatorship. That proved difficult to do. A major reorganization took place in the 1960s, resulting in the creation of the NPA (New People’s Army) in 1969. The new communist rebel organization adopted the Chinese “Maoist” long term strategy. That was not very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they were in charge. Enthusiasm for a "communist solution" went sharply downhill after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist allies between 1989 and 1991. That massive failure of communist states left the NPA much weaker ideologically and vulnerable to subsequent amnesty programs. A decade ago, NPA leaders admitted that they had only a small fraction of their peak (in the 1980s) strength of 26,000 armed members. There were some serious attempts to reverse the decline in popularity. NPA gunmen were instructed to behave better around civilians and the NPA were found giving some civilians, especially health or aid workers, cash compensation of a few hundred dollars each for wounds received during NPA attacks on soldiers or police. The government increased its efforts to provide medical care for such victims of NPA violence, the NPA tried to compete and found they couldn’t afford it.

Since early 2021 the military has revised their estimate of how much longer the NPA rebels can survive as an organization. At the start of the year, it was believed the NPA organization would be eliminated by mid-2022. So far this month there have been over a dozen planned attacks on the NPA and even more unplanned clashes during patrols. All this activity has left over a hundred NPA men dead or captured and a growing number surrendering, often as a direct result of these defeats and a growing willingness to report local NPA activity to the security forces, who are now prepared to act quickly on the information. This satisfies civilian calls to act against decades of NPA violence and extortion.

Military and police intel indicates that there are fewer than 3,000 active NPA members (armed and unarmed) nationwide. Monthly losses have been growing and changing attitudes among leaders about a negotiated end to the conflict. This decline was accelerated by the 2020 decision to designate the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA terrorists under the New Anti-Terrorism Act. The NPA was already suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units must depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This caused growing anger and protests in areas where the NPA still operated “for the good of the people.” The NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk.

For over a decade the government tried, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, were split on which peace terms were acceptable and most were continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Less cash and popular support lead to more desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters was increasingly common. This enabled military intelligence analysts to build an increasingly accurate assessment of the NPA size and capabilities. As a result, more NPA camps were being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested. A growing number of NPA leaders were demoralized by the extent of these losses in popular support. Some NPA leaders felt this was all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal difficult. Meanwhile the NPA maintained its status as a major source of criminal, as opposed to Islamic terrorist, activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines. The exiled NPA leadership still has some support in Western nations, which contributes to criticism of the Filipino tactics used to suppress NPA criminal activity.

Then there was the separatist problem. NPA members in general were dismayed when the Islamic terrorist and Moslem separatist violence in the south sharply declined after the 2014 vote by the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines to establish an autonomous Moslem region. This consisted of the southwest coast of the large southern island Mindanao and the string of smaller islands, mainly Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. The new Moslem entity was called Bangasamoro and provided more autonomy and responsibility. That meant the Moslems down there were responsible for maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangasamoro.

Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao and even more Christian neighbors of those Moslems. Filipino Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 12 million Moslems and over 95 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and more economically successful. The Moslem separatists believed they should run Mindanao even if they were the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the national government were willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines was not. A compromise was finally negotiated and approved by all voters. Diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around but not nearly as active as they were before 2014.

A Bad Memory Returns

The Japanese invasion and occupation left a lasting mark on Filipino attitudes and few Filipinos expected that sort of thing to happen again. As the communist and Islamic terrorist threats began to fade a decade ago, something potentially worse than the World War II Japanese showed up. A revitalized, now more fascist than communist, China began making claims on Filipino territory in the South China Sea and against all their neighbors. When strenuously rebuffed by the Philippines, the Chinese proved more relentless than the Japanese. While the Japanese felt they had to win their war against the West in a few years, China is willing to take decades. Like during World War II, Filipinos are dependent on more powerful allies to survive. They still have the Americans, but also a democratic Japan with military forces second only to China in East Asia. The anti-China coalition now includes more economic and military power than China can muster. This threat is not going to disappear as spectacularly as the Japanese did in 1945. There were still diehard Japanese soldiers surviving in remote areas until the 1970s, but now the Japanese are benefactors and allies. Likewise the Chinese threat will never fully fade and looks like a long-tern headache.

September 27, 2021: In the south (Occidental Mindoro province) three Australian warships arrived to train with Filipino warships and aircraft off Cabra Island, which faces the South China Sea.

September 25, 2021: President Duterte is in the last year of his six-year term and that played a part in a recent drop in his voter satisfaction ratings from 79 percent in late 2020 to 62 in mid-2021. Duterte is running for vice-president in the next presidential elections and most voters do not approve of that. Duterte earned his sustained high approval ratings by doing something none of his predecessors could do; his campaign promises included reducing violence and corruption and he actually did just that. Term limits prevent a second term as president and running for vice-president seems pointless, or sinister or both.

September 23, 2021: In the south (Surigao del Sur province) soldiers clashed with NPA gunmen, leaving three of the communist rebels dead.

In the south (Davao del Norte province) seven NPA rebels surrendered, mainly because of hunger and despair. Two of the communist rebels were teenagers (15 and 16). The NPA has made itself even more unpopular by recruiting teenagers and ignoring parental disapproval.

September 21, 2021: In the far north (Cagayan province) troops found an NPA camp and at least 40 NPA gunmen, who fled. Pursuing troops eventually found the bodies of five rebels who had either died of wounds from the gun battle or airstrikes that supported the operation. Troops also found an NPA landmine workshop and captured weapons, ammunition, explosives and landmine components. The army expects some NPA members to surrender because of this defeat. This has been the pattern since 2018.

September 20, 2021: In the south (Bukidnon and Agusan del Norte provinces) clashes with the NPA left six of the communist rebels dead and many more firearms captured. Tips from local civilians led the troops to where the rebels were operating.

August 30, 2021: In the south (Misamis Oriental province) an NPA base was raided yesterday and fleeing NPA members tracked and pursued until two clashes with rebels led four of the communist gunmen killed and the survivors, some of them wounded, dispersed in several directions. To military intel and local civilians this indicated the end of a local faction of the NPA.

 

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