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Insurgency Re-examined, from the Free Press Centennial Issue

The Recusant

Patricio N. Abinales

Insurgency Re-examined

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.

Red flags and raised fists

Red flags and raised fists

By Dan Mariano

Special to the Century Book

DURING the 1950s and early 1960s, nationalism was equated with communism. Filipinos were, in general, perfectly content to be regarded as the Americans’ “little brown brothers.”

Yet, in this sea of colonial mentality emerged islands of nationalism that invoked the unresolved conflict between Philippine Independence and America’s Manifest Destiny at the turn of the century.

These nationalist pockets were initially manned by politicians such as Claro M. Recto, Jose P. Laurel and Lorenzo Tañada, who gave inspiration t o associations like the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN). By the mid-l960s, nationalism began to attract a younger crop of Filipinos.

In l964, a group of university students founded the Kabataang Makabayan. By l968, the KM’s patriotic platform was reinforced by Mao Zedong Thought. Later, that same year, its leading members—who had previously been associated with MAN—and several Huk commanders disenchanted with the old PKP declared the “re–establishment” of the Communist Party of Philippines along Maoist lines on December 26.

On March 29 of the following year, the New People’s Army (NPA) was organized, announcing the CPP’s determination to capture state power through armed struggle.

IN 1969, with the relaxation of sexual standards came the proliferation of pornography. Local movie producers made a killing out of films that titillated previously conservative Filipinos with frontal nudity and graphic bed scenes. A mere decade was all it took for the local film industry to take a licentious leap from wholesome, family-oriented movies like “Ibiang, Mahal Kita” to the salacious “Ang Saging ni Pacing,” which left little to the imagination.

Adding to the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere of 1969 were the lavish parties that the elite threw, giving currency to the phrase “ostentatious display of wealth.” The grandest of these was a banquet staged by the Lopezes—kingpins of the sugar bloc and owners of the country’s biggest broadcasting network and electric utility—where champagne flowed, literally, from a fountain.

IF 1969 was Fat Tuesday, 1970 became the nation’s Good Friday when popular passions reached boiling point.

Ferdinand Marcos had just won an unprecedented second term in an election that his political rivals and independent observers alike claimed were the dirtiest in the nation’s political history. Nevertheless, Marcos felt that his reelection vindicated the “record of performance” of his first term, which witnessed an explosion of public works construction that, for the most part, was financed with Japanese war reparations.

Although the country had more roads, bridges, dams and irrigation systems than ever before, the economy had begun to nose-dive. The peso underwent 100-percent devaluation, with the exchange rate going from P2:$1 to P4:$1, then P8:$1. The prices of basic commodities rose out of the reach of the working population, whose wages were not allowed to keep up with inflation.

When he delivered his State of the Nation Address on the afternoon January 26, 1970 before a joint session of Congress, the popularity that allowed him to win reelection the year before was already badly eroded.

Outside the legislative building, hundreds of moderate student activists were demonstrating to urge the government to call a constitutional convention. As Marcos stepped out of the building and onto the driveway, a papier-mâché crocodile (representing government corruption) and a make shift coffin (symbolizing the death of democracy) flew in his direction. Security aides quickly hustled Marcos into his waiting limousine and sped off away from the angry mob. Moments later, Manila police armed with truncheons and rattan shields attacked the student demonstrators who fought back with empty soft drink bottle, rocks and the wooden frames of their placards.

The first encounter of what would later be called the First Quarter Storm (FQS) of 1970 ran for several hours with either side gaining, losing and retaking ground on. J. Burgos Street in front of what was then the congress building. Another phrase would gain currency that evening: “police brutality.”

Rarely did the protesters number more than 10,000 at any given demonstration, but the impression they left was of a whole generation rising up in rebellion.

THE main focus of 1971 was the election for eight seats in the Senate. The bloody events leading up to the voting would exert a marked influence on the outcome.

Emboldened by the phenomenal growth of the youth movement, UP students occupied the Diliman campus and barricaded its main roads. In this, they won the support of the faculty, non-academic personnel and virtually the entire UP community.

The campus remained under the students’ control for several days until the university radio station began broadcasting a tape recording purportedly of Marcos making love to an American starlet, Dovie Beams. That proved to be the last straw. The President ordered the PC Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) to retake the campus. The first thing the troops did after dispersing the protesters was to smash the transmission equipment of DZUP, which was never heard from again.

On the eve of the by-election, the opposition Liberal Party was holding its final rally at Plaza Miranda when all of a sudden the stage was rocked with an explosion that was soon followed by another. The grenade attack killed about a dozen people and injured scores of others, including LP senatorial candidates Jovito Salonga, Ramon Mitra, Eddie Ilarde and Eva Estrada Kalaw.

The blame quickly fell on Marcos, who merely encouraged the popular suspicion by suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus that same evening.

BY 1972, the feeling of dread that Marcos was up to no good had become so palpable that even sections of the press that had once given him favorable coverage began to turn critical and pro-opposition. Thus, when Senator Aquino delivered a privileged speech exposing an alleged plot to justify the declaration of martial law, the media painted the town red with the explosive disclosure.

The plot, codenamed Oplan Sagittarius, contained all the incidents that had already taken place that would lead the public to conclude that the situation was getting out of hand, the communists were running berserk, the political opposition was encouraging civil unrest and, therefore, the government had to step in to regain control.

All that needed to be carried out, according to the plot, was an attempt on the life of a high-ranking official of the Marcos administration.

That scenario unfolded one night in September 1972. The following day, the newspapers ran pictures of a car assigned to Enrile that bore so many bullet holes only a miracle could have made the defense secretary come out of it alive. Years later, after leading a coup against Marcos, Enrile would confess that the ambush had been staged.

Days later, Filipinos woke up to find their radios eerily silent. No newsboy came around to deliver the papers. Later in the afternoon, the television station owned by Marcos crony Roberto Benedicto went on the air and asked viewers to stand by for a very important announcement direct from Malacañang.

The talking head that eventually came into view belonged to Francisco Tatad. With all the solemnity that he could muster, the press secretary announced that Marcos had issued Proclamation No. 1081 placing the entire country under martial law.

The nightmare had begun.