Patricio N. Abinales
A sympathetic media has kept the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on high profile such that foreign and domestic observers have cited them as evidence of a political system in perennial crisis mode and permanent instability. Intermittent ambushes by NPA and the occasional attacks by MILF commanders on AFP outposts are magnified, morphing into “major military offensives” that purportedly expose the fragility of government authority in the countryside.
Yet if one momentarily steps out of the din of the rhetoric and the reportage and looks at both insurgencies more objectively, one actually will also notice a number of under-reported incongruities. In the CPP’s case, reportage on the surge in ambushes fail to note that most of these are happening in the northeastern portion of Mindanao and only sporadically in other parts of the archipelago. Why this asymmetry exists is something that media seems uninterested to pursue. More importantly, media outlets appear not to spot the one clear anomaly that confronts the CPP today: its difficulty in complementing its “advances” in rural warfare with similar breakthroughs in the urban mass politics. While its parliamentary front Bayan Muna, has been instrumental in keeping the CPP at the center of bourgeois politics, and despite consistent print and media coverage of miniscule student protests led by other front organizations like Anakbayan, the truth is that the CPP is still years, perhaps even decades, of reaching the high numbers it had in the late years of the Marcos dictatorship.
No urban protest has shut down thoroughfares the same way as the waves of welgang bayan the CPP launched in the 1980s. No schools have been forced to suspend classes due to massive boycotts, nor factories locked-down because of widespread workers’ strikes. And when urban poor communities resist “urban renewal,” they do so because their immediate lives are at stake; there is hardly anything political in their battles against the police. The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) now relies mainly on its “spokesman” delivering bad speeches in Congress; there is none anymore of those huge “poor people’s marches” that marked the heyday of the now dismissed Jaime Tadeo. The “loudest” of the CPP legal organizations, (in part because it is media savvy), is a fisherman’s group whose membership size is quite dubious (note, for example, that Pamalakaya has never had any national congress).
The question that journalists consistently failed to ask is why this unevenness in the CPP revival? Part of the problem has to do with the 1992 split when its Great Leader and eternal chairman Jose Ma. Sison presided over the destruction of the Party’s more dynamic and innovative regional organization, and the expulsion of over half of its central committee members. This singular Stalinist act deprived the revolution of the very cadres that presided over its growth; cadres known for their refusal to be straight-jacketed by Sison’s dogmatic devotion to Maoism, and who then devised creative strategies to turn the CPP into a national military and political movement. After their expulsion – and in the case of Filemon Lagman (Manila-Rizal), Arturo Tabara (Western Visayas) and Rollie Kintanar (NPA chief of staff and Mindanao), their Mafia-style execution – the Party has been having a hard time developing cadres of the same caliber as these “renegades.” The sickly Ka Roger pales in comparison to Kintanar, BAYAN’s Renato Reyes is a poor copycat of the late Lean Alejandro, and the best united front work Teodoro Casiño and Satur Ocampo have been doing of late is making backroom deals with landlords in Congress. Finally, of all the NPA guerrilla zones that remain active, it is only those in Mindanao that have shown the way. The irony here is that these were the same NPA units that Kintanar and the late Benjamin De Vera created and protected from the bloody internal executions of the 1980s.
These internal weaknesses are being aggravated by a shift in the state’s counter-insurgency warfare. While its senior leadership still refers to its strategy as a “war over hearts and minds,” the military – if we are to believe the claims of the pro-CPP human rights group Karapatan – has adopted a mini-version of the successful Phoenix program that nearly destroyed the entire Vietcong infrastructure in South Vietnam. The selective killing of activists and cadres suspected of playing important roles in the revival of the legal organizations in the towns and cities have maimed the urban mass movements that are supposed to function first as diversions to ease military pressures on the guerrilla zones, and later to back up the NPA as it shifts to a more aggressive conventional war against the Philippine state. But with their organizers dead and those who were supposed to succeed made to think twice before assuming senior positions that could be their death warrants, the Party is more and more forced to rely on its military power to maintain its image as the single biggest threat to the government. Hence the increase in the number of ambushes, which now includes the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) akin to those used in Iraq by Al Qaeda. This, unfortunately, is not what “people’s war” is all about, but the CPP has really very little choice.
The other insurgency has taken a lot of headline space these days after the MILF and the government have come to terms over the issue of what exactly comprised the Moro people’s ancestral domain. The agreement came just at the right time for both protagonists. For Gloria Arroyo it was a chance to show Congress and the 13 percent who might watch her SONA that something is being done about the Mindanao war, and for the MILF, the agreement has further entrenched its position as the real spokesman (yes, the fundamentalist MILF is an all-male club) of the Moro people.
It is the criticism of weapons that has so far kept the MILF at the center of Mindanao’s political landscape (its senior adviser, the politico Michael Mastura once boasted at a donor’s conference that funders should listen to “us” because “we have the guns!”). A second look at this vaunted capability however raises certain question. Like the NPA, the MILF occasionally probes the AFP’s armor, the latest attacks a month or so before the above agreement (the MILF bosses claim these were tantrums by commanders who were supposedly frustrated at the slow pace of the negotiations).. But unlike the NPA, the MILF’s combat zones are extremely constricted — its forces rarely venture outside areas where the communities are under its control. Roughly, we are talking here of Maguindanao province, parts of Lanao del Sur (the southeastern portions), North Cotabato (towns bordering Lanao del Sur), Sulu and Basilan, and a little patch in South Cotabato. Not much of an area if placed in the larger island frame of Mindanao.
The MILF, in short, is fighting a defensive war and its attacks should be properly interpreted as warnings to the AFP to keep its units outside of rebel territory. They were never aimed to expand that space. And if the MILF does decides to “liberate” the rest of Mindanao in the name of the Bangsamoro, there is a 99 percent certainty that it will not even reach even the border of Southern Kudarat or go beyond Tubod, Lanao del Sur; all these despite its supposedly vaunted firepower (which, if one recalls, paled in comparison to the AFP’s when the two confronted each other in 2000).
To military limitations we add political insularity. The MILF has never disavowed that it is claiming Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu mainly for the Bangsa Moro, with the Christian majorities and lumad minorities having only minor, and the case of the lumad, no role at all in its realization. In fact it continues to stoke the resentment and biases of the latter by its military arrogance and dogmatic attachment to the myth of centuries-long of Moro resistance. The MILF has failed to realize that to ensure the success of its separatist goals, it must be able to draw in Christians and lumad into its fold. Unlike the CPP, the MILF feels no need for an NDF, and the reason for this is its belief that all Muslims are behind it.
This is not necessarily true. There is no solid evidence that the entire ummah is backs the MILF’s struggle. In fact frictions within the community are quite obvious. Family or clan loyalty is still far stronger than devotion to the Bangsamoro and prejudices abound between the three principal groups: the Maguindanaos, Maranaos, and Tausogs (again media seems to miss out on the fact that choices for ARMM are also often determined by which group’s turn to govern). Already, the recent hint by Arroyo’s people that elections to the ARMM may be postponed in the light of the ancestral domain agreement has elicited strong reservations from Muslim politicians whose role in the MILF’s Bangsamoro Judicial Entity is actually ill-defined. Are they expected to turn over power to the rebel group? One doubts if they will.
Insurgencies never win if the states they wish to overthrow do not collapse completely as a result of a major conventional war sustained by a steady supply of war material from powerful external sources. This was the case of the successful Asian communist revolutions of the 20th century. With the exception of East Timor, no other separatist movement has managed to break up a Southeast Asian nation-state. In fact, the universal path to success is through compromises with a nation’s government (see, in particular, the case of Burma). There is no such major war in the horizon for the Philippines and the patrons of Moro separatism are tired of wasting resources on a cause that appears to be succeeding better in the negotiating table than in the battlefield.
We will therefore most likely continue to be witness to these lingering-but-failing-to-succeed wars of the flea, their presence becoming more or less a permanent feature of our political narrative.