Communists Crumbling in the Philippines
Philippines’ Maoist rebels in decline but remain a threat in Eastern Mindanao and the Visayas
By: Michael Hart
“The greatest stumbling block to peace for the Philippines is gone.” That was the reaction of the Philippine government in December after the death of New People’s Army (NPA) leader Jose Maria Sison, aged 83, in exile in the Netherlands. Sison had led the Maoist rebel movement—which has waged war against Manila’s forces across the archipelagic nation since 1969—since its beginnings, having founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) a year earlier. The NPA, as the CPP’s armed wing, has battled since then to replace the government with a socialist one-party state.
At its peak during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in the 1980s, the NPA could count on 25,000 fighters and regularly ambushed government troops and police officers on patrol in the countryside. For decades, the NPA has exerted control over rural communities through intimidation, threats of violent retribution for opponents, and the collection of so-called “revolutionary taxes.”
Yet according to the Philippine military, the NPA’s days are numbered. Just before Sison’s passing, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported that only 24 of 89 guerilla fronts remained active nationwide, with the group’s strength having reduced from 4,000 rebels in recent years to 2,112. It is estimated that just 1,800 firearms remain in its arsenal. And now, with no figurehead having emerged to replace Sison, the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has the NPA in its sights, four decades after his father’s failed quest to end the insurgency under martial law.
The leadership void at the top of the NPA is stark. Sison’s most obvious successors—Benito and Wilma Tiamzon—were recently confirmed by the CPP to have died last year in a disputed clash with the military in Catbalogan on the island of Samar, 750 km south of Manila. Benito, 71, had served as chair of the CPP’s executive committee while his wife Wilma, 70, was secretary-general. Both had been allies of Sison since their days as youth activists in the 1960s. His only other potential successor, Luis Jalandoni, is 87 and has lived in exile for years. It appears there is no one with the stature of Sison to inspire the next generation.
The military has been keen to draw attention to the NPA’s struggles. The Armed Forces chief in the Visayas, covering the Philippines’ central belt of provinces, Maj.-Gen. Benedict Arevalo, has said the NPA is “drastically degraded” in the region. In the eastern Visayas, the NPA is leaderless after losing four key commanders over the past year, and the AFP claims “no one is giving [the rebels] instructions.” According to the AFP, only two NPA fronts remain in the region, with around 200 fighters each. Most are thought to be hiding out in the mountains of Samar and largely refrain from attacking soldiers for fear it will expose their positions. Earlier this month, Arevalo said the remaining rebels in the eastern Visayas were “tired due to constant movement [between camps] and have no safe place to hide.”
In the western Visayas, the AFP claims NPA rebels are increasingly demoralized and have “no clear operational direction” after their commander Rogelio Posadas—responsible for operations in Bohol, Cebu, Siquijor, and Negros Island—was killed in an encounter with government soldiers. Troops have taken control of many remote villages previously under NPA influence, stymying rebel recruitment.
NPA nearing defeat?
In the NPA stronghold of eastern Mindanao, the trajectory is similar. Its most senior commander in the region, Menandro Villanueva, was killed by troops in Davao de Oro last year. The AFP says there are now just four active rebel fronts left in the region, down from 32 in 2017, when the AFP stepped up its campaign after peace talks with the CPP faltered under former president Rodrigo Duterte. The NPA’s losses have led his successor Marcos to declare that “half-a-century’s fight with insurgents is coming to an end.” The National Security Council (NSC) declared “strategic victory” over the NPA in April, and said it foresees the AFP securing “total victory” against the rebels within two years.
The government credits the degrading of the NPA not only to AFP offensives, but also to the creation of a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in 2018. This body has engaged NPA commanders at the local level, and encouraged insurgents to lay down their arms in return for livelihood support under the Enhanced-Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP). It has also directed development funds to rebel-influenced villages to blunt its rural support base.
The NTF-ELCAC was established by Duterte after he ended national-level negotiations with the CPP leadership. Marcos has rejected resuming talks and persisted with Duterte’s strategy. Arguably, after Sison’s death and the demise of the Tiamzons, there is now nobody left to negotiate with. Manila hopes the symbolic blow of Sison’s death, and the resulting hit to morale, will lead more NPA rebels to surrender. There is controversy over exactly how many have surrendered to date—with the task force accused of listing NPA supporters and the family members of ex-rebels as former combatants.
The CPP has acknowledged suffering setbacks but denies the extent of losses from its ranks. It also rejects claims by the AFP that few rebel fronts remain active. Is the NPA really on the brink of defeat after Sison’s death, as the AFP claims? Looking at rebel activity in 2023 indicates that it is struggling.
From January 1 to May 23, the NPA has been active in 29 provinces, with at least 70 armed clashes and violent incidents involving the group. This indicates a rebel presence across wide swaths of the NPA’s historical areas of operation, from northern Luzon to Mindanao. The NPA is, however, firmly on the retreat, with proactive roadside ambushes and bombings an increasingly rare occurrence. This is borne out by the casualty figures from clashes so far this year, with 68 NPA rebels killed compared to just six AFP troops.* Most clashes were initiated by government soldiers, either while encountering rebels on routine patrol or during targeted intelligence-based operations.
NPA activity has remained prevalent in Eastern Mindanao, Samar, Masbate, and Negros Island, indicating that the group is still holding out in some of its traditional strongholds. Yet even in these areas, the rebels’ influence over residents has significantly reduced as the NPA lacks the capacity it once had to coerce entire rural communities into compliance. Arson attacks on firms that refuse to bow to extortion demands, and raids on businesses to steal weapons from private security guards, are becoming much less frequent, limiting the rebels’ ability to sustain and finance their campaign.
With the NPA in decline, the government may yet bolster AFP offensives and the efforts of the NTF-ELCAC with an amnesty law, aiming to persuade remaining rebels to surrender without the threat of facing court over already-filed criminal charges. The NTF-ELCAC has recommended the amnesty to President Marcos, while AFP chief Gen. Andres Centino has said the military would support it. If such a law is enacted, as was the case for a smaller, now-defunct Maoist rebel group, the Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB), the NPA will struggle to hold on to its fighters.
The CPP maintains that rank-and-file NPA members will not defect, retorting that any amnesty offer would be “rejected by revolutionaries who are whole-heartedly committed to serving the oppressed and exploited masses.” If that is true, the CPP must hope this ideology, which has sustained its five-decade insurgency in the Philippine countryside, does not perish with its founder Jose Maria Sison.
*Data on areas of NPA activity, violent events, and casualties in 2023 is from this author’s monitoring of incident reports.
Michael Hart has researched for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), and is publications consultant at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.