Manila focuses on rising foe: communist guerrillas

Philippine forces and members of the New People's Army fought again this week.

After a decade of decline, Asia's longest-running communist movement appears to be making a comeback.

At a meeting with reporters last month, armed forces chief Gen. Roy Cimatu described the growth of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed guerrilla wing, the New People's Army (NPA), as "too alarming." Then a few days later, the US State Department placed the CPP and the NPA on a list of 34 foreign terrorist organizations.

In recent years, communist guerrilla raids and military firefights have been reported with increasing frequency. Last week, the NPA took responsibility for the death of a police chief in Vallehermoso. Rebels and government forces clashed again this week in Quezon Province; one communist guerrilla was killed and three others were captured, according to the military.

Persistent poverty and lack of social equity, analysts say, are swelling the ranks of the CPP with a more diverse group of Filipinos – many of whom know little about communist ideology. The trend is raising concern about Manila's failure to reform its economy and politics, nearly two decades after the end of Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship and the restoration of democracy.

For Manila, it means the communist insurgency may be eclipsing rebels like the prominent Abu Sayaff – a militant Islamic group with links to Al Qaeda – as the main security concern.

"The communists are more insidious – they are the real problem to security in the long term," says security analyst Rex Robles in Manila. "The Abu Sayaff don't want to destroy the government, they just want money. But the NPA has been engaged in a systematic killing of officers and they want to destroy the government."

The Philippine Marxist movement – which includes the CPP and two other breakaway factions – is largely homegrown. Other than limited funding from nongovernment organizations in the Netherlands and Belgium, it receives almost no foreign support.

The NPA gained international notoriety after killing the US military adviser in the Philippines Col. James Rowe in 1989. It supports itself with extortions from logging and mining firms and plantations. Since 1995, the number of villages with NPA presence has grown 20 percent, according to General Cimatu. Today, 5.5 percent of the country's villages are considered "affected," which in military parlance means they have communist influence.

Many of these new supporters, Mr. Robles points out, are young Filipinos who are less ideologically inclined than the original founders of the CPP and NPA. Rather, he says, the resurgence of the communist movement has been fueled by poverty-driven issues like a lack of job opportunities. Unemployment reached an all-time high of 14 percent this year, while 40 percent of the 80 million Filipinos live below the poverty line.

Other observers stress that government corruption is increasing communist support. Satur Ocampo, former spokesman of the CPP's political wing, the National Democratic Front, points to instances when the ruling elite have blocked reforms in congress designed to help the poor, especially farmers.

"There is corruption in the bureaucracy, in the police, and military – it is the same racket (that gives the perception) that society is being run for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the poor," says Robles. "It is deeply ingrained in our young generation that the wealth of the Philippines is not used in the Philippines."

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, in Washington for talks with US officials last month, said that $25 million, or half of the aid the US pledged to Manila to fight terrorism, would be used to strengthen the Philippine military to fight the communist movement. The government has since stepped up efforts to quiet the rebels.

But the US "terrorist" label has complicated peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the communists, which have been carried on intermittently for 16 years with little progress.

Ocampo, took part in the first round of peace talks with the government in the mid-1980s. Talks were last suspended in June 2001, after the NPA killed two congressmen. Arroyo has called for new guidelines to be drawn up for resuming talks. In the meantime, despite the US terrorist label, she has ordered the continuation of "back-channeling," – a way of keeping unofficial communication lines with the communists open. The Arroyo government hopes that the terrorist tag will nudge the communists to the negotiating table.

But some observers are less optimistic. "President Arroyo has tilted too far to the Americans (in the alliance to fight terrorism)," says political analyst Nelson Navarro, in Manila. "Washington is dictating to her how she is going to solve a domestic problem. This will expose her to charges she is a US puppet."

Large doses of US aid in the past (when the US maintained two large military bases here till 1992) didn't help the government defeat the NPA, Mr. Navarro says.

Navarro foresees a "negotiated stalemate" – with neither side winning.

"The Philippine military will be kept happy with US aid, and the ruling elite will be happy just to keep the communists at bay," he says.

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