Philippines' Communists, Losing Enemies, Keep the Faith

Like its comrades around the world, the party and its fighters still champion the poor despite post-Marcos liberal reforms

IT'S getting so you can count the world's remaining communist insurgencies on one hand.

The guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) still stalk the mountains of Peru. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge rebels continue to wage civil war from bases along their country's border with Thailand. And in the Philippines, a fragmented political left wonders what to do in a world where the radical ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries have about as much galvanizing power as listening to golf on the radio.

Nonetheless, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) is not entirely discredited here. Even mainstream figures show some respect for the CPP-influenced left. ''They're still relevant in reminding us what should be done,'' says Jose Luis Yulo Jr., president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a scion of one of the wealthiest families.

That Philippine communism has any credibility at all is remarkable in itself. Its old enemies -- the late president and dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and the presence of two large United States military bases -- are gone. The country has had presidential and congressional elections since the 1986 ouster of Marcos and is now recording healthier rates of economic growth than during the last dismal years of Marcos.

There are some grumblings about the overcentralization of power in the hands of President Fidel Ramos, but the press is vigorous and free, and the Roman Catholic Church remains an alert critic of government.

The CPP's military wing, the New People's Army (NPA), is rent by divisions and outclassed by the military. It no longer poses a threat to the central government. In the early 1980s, when the CPP had some 40,000 members, the NPA could field about 15,000 regular fighters, according to Satur Ocampo, a former party member who was once the spokesman of its political front.

The NPA was active in mainly rural areas, reflecting the peasant-oriented, hit-and-run strategy adopted from Mao Zedong, China's communist revolutionary and leader. Tenant farmers resentful of their landlords still give an ear to the party's ideologues, some of whom received training in China over two decades ago.

Now the leaders of the CPP, some of whom prefer to stay in the Netherlands, are continuing a long peace process with the government that will enter a new and perhaps final round of negotiations on June 1. NPA guerrillas, perhaps as many as 7,000, still fight in the hills, but their actions seem primarily designed to shore up the CPP's negotiation position. The CPP now has far fewer members than it once did, but keeps its numbers secret.

A rebel with a cause

Somewhat more dynamic is the large, Manila-based faction of the CPP, which broke away from the party's mainstream in early 1992. Filemon Lagman, the de facto head of the faction, called the Manila Rizal, says his group has 13,000 members, including 1,000 new recruits who joined during 1994. He proudly recalls a November 1993 demonstration the faction organized that he says drew 80,000 people.

Meeting Mr. Lagman, arguably the most prominent Filipino communist not in jail or exile, seems like shaking hands with a living anachronism. Recently he agreed to an interview, turning up with an entourage of armed bodyguards and a young assistant who had recently graduated from university to join the revolution.

The rendezvous point was a Manila coffee shop called the Dean St. Cafe, an outlet of a chain that celebrates the late American movie star. Unlike the antiheroes James Dean portrayed, however, Lagman is a rebel who still has a cause. ''If you want to call us moderate, that will help in repackaging our image, but I can tell you I am not a moderate,'' he insists. In his case, lack of moderation means preserving his faction's capability to mount an armed struggle against the government.

Released from jail last year, Lagman is coy about his role in the leadership of the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), an urban-guerrilla unit under Manila Rizal that is responsible for hundreds of killings during the past two decades. One of the ABB's most recent exploits was the December assassination of a police officer who had recently been acquitted of corruption charges. The ABB, like many Filipinos, believed he was guilty. The group recently vowed to target Singaporeans in retaliation for Singapore's March 17 hanging of a Filipina maid convicted of murder.

Despite Lagman's bravado, at times he can sound like the retooled communists of China or Vietnam: ''I am a communist, but I know we need capitalism to develop this country.''

He is critical of the some of the CPP's key strategic errors, such as the decision to boycott the 1986 election that brought President Corazon Aquino to power after Marcos's ouster. During the party's 25 years of armed struggle, he says, the ''achievements did not equal the sacrifices.'' The NPA could have fought a guerrilla war for 50 years, he admits, and still not have tilted the balance against the government.

Joining the mainstream?

Now the task is to ''try as much as possible to look for a less painful, less bloody way'' of increasing social equity in Philippine society. The faction is considering participating in elections and even supporting non-communist candidates who take positions the leftists endorse.

Another group of Filipino leftists trying to maintain viability is a recently organized coalition called Sanlakas. Founded in December 1994, Sanlakas brings together unions, nongovernmental organizations, and other politically oriented groups into a loose federation that hopes to advance leftist causes by supporting candidates and promoting reform.

''We can't use old weapons to fight new battles,'' says Renato Constantino, the group's president. He criticizes the nature of economic growth in the Philippines, saying the free-market strategies of President Ramos have mainly benefited the elite. ''While there may be a year or two of [a growth] spurt, it's not going to be sustainable,'' he says.

There is some truth to Mr. Constantino's critique. Economists acknowledge that the benefits of Ramos's liberalization measures have not yet been felt by the Philippine poor, about half of the population of 65 million.

That is one reason why there is still some life left among the leftist movements of the Philippines. As Mr. Ocampo, the former party member, puts it, the question remains: ''Who will win over the vast segment of the Filipino people who are not feeling the effects of development?''

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