Communist Shootout in the Philippines

Hundreds of Filipino troops are searching for communist guerrillas who killed 11 soldiers Saturday in an ambush of a platoon of soldiers patrolling in a remote village in the island of Mindoro 140 km south of Luzon. Seven soldiers were wounded.

It was the worst government loss this year, coming just three weeks before the communist-led rebel forces celebrate their 41st founding anniversary, the world’s longest such guerilla campaign. But despite the spectacular nature of the action, it doesn’t indicate that the New People’s Army have suddenly got any stronger. It is nearing election time, when traditionally the NPA uses the period to extort protection fees from candidates to allow them to campaign in "rebel-held territories."

The Communist insurgency is mainly centered in outlying regions including Bicol, Caraga and southern Mindanao although there have been sporadic attacks in urban areas. Reports said the government troops were responding to the presence of armed men in the village of Panaytayan in Oriental Mindoro when they were ambushed by an undetermined number of NPA guerillas. Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. of the Armed Forces Philippines’ public information office said soldiers led by 2nd Lt. Ronnie Sipsip engaged the rebels in a three-hour shootout that left the military almost without ammunition.

It appears that the Army stumbled onto the guerrilla camp. Normally, say observers in the Philippines, the military is reluctant to take on the Communists head-on. They were said to be conducting "clearing operations" in preparation for the May 10 elections to neutralize the NPA. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the rebel side.

Certainly, with the national elections now close enough to appear on the radar, NPA activities have begun to pick up as the electoral targets of opportunity for extortion grow. According to the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments, the Communist organization "requires electoral candidates to pay so-called ‘permit-to-campaign fees’ to guarantee safety while campaigning." During 2004 elections, PSA said, extortion fees ranged from P10,000 (US$217) for local councilors to P1 million for one of the 26 national Senate seats. Failure to pay, PSA said, can lead to kidnapping, harassment and occasional assassination.

The NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, claims it has grown from a ragtag band to a nationwide "people’s army" operating in at least 120 guerilla fronts all over the Philippines. Government security officials, however, say the number of NPA rebels has probably fallen to fewer than 5,000 armed regulars from a high of 25,000 during the peak of rebel activities in the mid-80s. As many as 40,000 people have lost their lives, although relatively few in recent years.

The NPA’s biggest foray in the recent past was in Southern Mindanao in November, when 80 to 100 armed rebels raided a government militia base in the town of Sudecor in Southern Mindano, disarming the security personnel and taking them hostage. Subsequent fighting killed eight government soldiers and five other security personnel of various kinds. Ten other soldiers were wounded and 11 rebels were reportedly killed.

"The vast majority of NPA attacks and after-action ambushes of responding soldiers occur on tertiary roads where most businessmen never travel," PSA said. Major attacks in urban centers are extremely rare and sporadic, and very seldom are they targeted against foreign firms.

The NPA has little to show for its 41 years of armed struggle. Over recent years the Communists have wavered between continuing the armed struggle and joining the conventional political process, if the process in the Philippines could ever be called conventional. The upcoming elections, PSA says, may be provoking a split between the Communist Party and the NPA. The founding chairman, Jose Maria Sison, who remains in the Netherlands, and Benito Tiamzon, the NPA head, reportedly are at odds, with Sison endorsing leftist participation in the elections.

"The widening rift is reportedly extending down to the supporters of Sison, who has more followers in Luzon, and the followers of Tiamzon, who wields much influence in the Visayas and Mindanao where he supervises ground operations."

The Communist Party and the NPA fell on each other with murderous violence in purges in the 1980s that resulted in the torture and murder of as many as 3,500 NPA members and sympathizers who were accused of being spies of the governent. Another split occurred in the early 1990s when the movement fractured into eight separate factions that reduced its strength to the current level from the peak of about 25,000 in the 1980s.

According to statistics supplied by PSA, only about 20 percent of attacks in 2009 involved private businesses, and of those only 9 percent involved foreign firms or their subcontractors. Most of their attacks, like those of the fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, involved failed extortion bids and didn’t have anything to do with Communist ideology. Only about 12 percent of the NPA attacks took place along roads, according to the PSA report.

Under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the military conducted a scorched-earth war on the NPA and alleged sympathizers, murdering and assassinating as many as 800 people after she took office in 2001, according to a 2007 article by Asia Sentinel. Most, according to the article, were mere leftists or people who had given up the guerilla campaign and who had little to do with the NPA.

"Human rights groups here and abroad say the government …has crossed the line with an anti-left campaign that some say has claimed nearly 800 lives since she took office in 2001," the story said, quoting Amnesty International as saying 51 leftist leaders were assassinated in the first half of 2006 and the group earlier in the year condemned the killings in a strongly worded report. "Attacks rarely lead to the charge, arrest, or prosecution of the murderers," Amnesty said. "A long-existing failure to prosecute and convict those suspected of human rights violations is having a corrosive impact on public confidence in the rule of law."

Despite the charges, no military or other government personnel have ever been arrested or prosecuted despite a UN report and government taskforce documenting military involvement in the disappearances.

Despite the killings, the NPA has continued its strategy of taxing small businessmen and particularly mining operations. The military, in response, has created a "Social Integration Program" to provide financial assistance for the rebels in exchange for surrender, persuading 225 of them to give up the fight in 2008, according to Project Plowshares, an Ontario, Canada-based religious organization.

Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent.