The history of communist insurgency in the Philippines dates back in World War II when Marxist-Leninist inspired group called Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap) fought on the side of Filipino and American forces against the Japanese. That was so because Russia or USSR, the first communist state in the world and its patron, was part of the Allied Forces that fought Germany in World War II. The Hukbalahap also championed the cause of the peasants and also fought the landlords in Central Luzon and those who were suspected of collaborating with the Japanese.
During the election of 1946 just after the war members of the Hukbalahap led by Luis Taruc ran for election and some of them won. However, President Roxas unseated them, and they went to the jungle to revolt. The image projected by the communists as defenders of the peasants and the poor plus the corruption of the succeeding president had strengthened their mass based support as well as its armed capability. It came close to victory so that it even threatened to advance to Manila, the national capital.
In 1949, the Filipino communists got a morale boost and inspiration from a world event which was the overthrow of China’s Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek by the communists who were led by Mao Zedong. The victory of the Chinese communists had somehow strengthened the conviction of their local counterparts that the rebellion could succeed.
The ambush by the communists of the popular former first lady Aurora Aragon Quezon, chairperson of the Philippine National Red Cross and widow of the late President Manuel L. Quezon, and her daughter “Baby” turned many Filipinos against them. President Harry Truman of the United States, wary of communist victory, sent arms and other war materiel to the Philippines to help its armed forces. One shining moment in the fight against the communists was the appointment of Ramon Magsaysay as defense secretary. Magsaysay enforced strict discipline in the military and vastly improved its capability to deal with the armed rebellion. Later, as the President of the Philippines he implemented social and economic reforms that eventually broke the backbone of communist rebellion. The communists were completely defeated in 1954 with their top leaders killed, captured and surrendered.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was vanquished, but its ideology was not. To keep that ideology from inspiring the youth, it should be discredited or replaced with a better one. The Marxist concept of sharing all works according to one’s ability and all benefits according to one’s need and a utopian society where everyone is equal is indeed appealing not only to the poor but also to most people. Corruption, unequal distribution of wealth and the privileges of the elites are ills of the Philippine society. The communists believed that application of their ideology is the solution to the country’s problems. Some people believed then that communism was the wave of the future whose eventual triumph could not be prevented.
Despite government’s effort to subdue it, Marxist-Leninist idea was passed on to new generation of youths and students. A line of communications between the old and the new communists was open. Jose Maria Sison alias Amado Guerrero emerged as the leader of the then communist youths. He differed however with the old group of Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) or the Communist Party of the Philippines regarding the way it carried out its operations in the past which resulted to the defeat or near extinction of the PKP. Furthermore, Sison was more inclined to the Chinese style communism or Maoism rather the Soviets’ on which the remnants of Hukbalahap under PKP Secretary General Jesus Lava adhered to. Correcting past errors, Sison made the First Rectification of the Communist Strategy.
The old communists under Lava however, took exception of Sison’s rectification campaign which led to the division between the old and the young communists. Sison considered Lava and his groups as counter revolutionary and revisionists. Sison bolted out from the PKP in 1968 and reestablished the Communist Party of the Philippines with him as the chairman. On March 29, 1969, Sison founded the New People’s Army (NPA) as the armed wing of the party.
The CPP/NPA made one of their boldest moves when they bombed the political campaign rally of the Liberal Party on August 21, 1971, in Plaza Miranda, Quiapo, Manila. It resulted to 9 dead and 95 injured, and almost wiped out the entire opposition senatorial ticket of the Party. The public attributed the incident to President Ferdinand Marcos. The communist- instigated rally in the streets spearhead by the League of Filipino Students created an atmosphere of instability and chaos so that Marcos had to suspend the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.
Near the end of his term, Marcos declared martial law which enabled him to extend his rule for another 13 long years. Under the pretext of containing communist and Muslim rebellions he imprisoned political oppositions, silenced the media and put up a puppet legislative assembly. The abuses committed by men in uniform in the hinterlands had somehow helped the NPA heightened their recruitment in the country side.
The repressive and corrupt Martial Law regime became a common ground for the communist and other well meaning groups to rally against. On April 24, 1973 the CPP/NPA established the National Democratic Front (NDF) as umbrella group in coalition with other sectors that were opposed to the dictatorship.
During the Martial Law years many of those who joined the CPP/NPA were intelligent idealistic youths who had bright future ahead of them if they had chosen to be in the mainstream path. But they chose to go underground and to live in hardship to follow their conviction.
Meanwhile, the United States and the neighboring South Viet Nam were defeated by the communist North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in 1975. The historic event was a sort of psychological boost to the local communists in the thought that a dedicated and highly motivated weaker force can defeat a seemingly bigger and formidable foe with a status of a super power.
The situation under Marcos came to a head when Benigno Aquino, a prominent opposition leader, was assassinated upon his arrival from the United States. Putting the blame on Marcos, people took to the street to protests. The resulting political upheaval took its toll on the economy and there was a strong call from the people for Marcos to resign. To appease them and to regain his image abroad, Marcos called for a snap election. Though he was declared a winner against his rival, Corazon Aquino, the people thought that the election was rigged. In February 1986 people turned out in large numbers to protest. Marcos woes were worsened when his defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Vice chief of staff Fidel Ramos defected to the protesters. Under extreme pressure, Marcos fled to Hawaii and Cory Aquino was proclaimed as president.
The stand of the communists in that historic moment to watch in the sideline and to wait and see was understandable considering that the Philippine military had taken the center stage of the February revolution. They knew that the military was uncompromisingly anti-communist, and there was no possibility that it would collaborate with them.
In 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic collapsed after 70 years of adapting Marxism. The event had a serious and negative implication to the cause the local communist are fighting for - their ideology. The experience of the USSR strongly indicated that communism does not work. However, the CPP/NPA did not go with the demise of the USSR. Although it has weakened, it continues to exist and remains a potent threat to national security.
Furthermore, after the death of Mao Zedong, his successors opened the door for private business ownership and invited foreign investors thus undoing his closed market policy. The result was that the economy of China improved tremendously. China is now the second largest economy in the world. However, China maintains its authoritarian character, and still considers itself as a communist state. The experience in China proves that Marxist state controlled economy stifles growth, and that an economy where businesses are privately owned is a better economic system.
Some of the former conditions which facilitated the growth of the CPP/NPA were gone. And worse the communists suffered enormous casualties in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines which caused their strength to dwindle. The central committee then declared the implementation of Second Great Rectification Movement in the 1990’s to make internal criticism on mistakes committed in the past. It was launched in 1992 and largely completed in 1998.
The rectification resulted to the purges in the rank of the CPP/NPA . Hundreds of members were secretly and summarily executed by their own comrades on suspicion of being deep penetration agent of the military. This resulted to the divisions and demoralization to the ranks of the communists. Jose Maria Sison reiterated his policy of a protracted war. Those who adhered to his view were called the reaffirmists. There were those who rejected his idea and believed that the NPA was ready to attack the urban centers as prelude to overthrow the government. Those who supported that view were called rejectionists.
The CPP/NPA’s rebellion had exacted its toll on the Filipinos especially those living in the rural area. It is estimated that the total number of death since the NPA’s founding in 1969 has now totaled 40,000. The casualties included military, police, civilians and communists. The NPAs have sustained their struggle by collecting taxes on business establishments like mining, logging, telecommunication companies and others. It is estimated that they had collected 1.5 billion pesos since 1998. The CPP/NPA is also reportedly receiving money from foreign donors and sponsors. The government and the military termed the collection of the NPAs as extortion.
NPAs’ imposition of revolutionary taxes has tarnished its image. They convey their message to uncooperative businessmen and establishments by destroying or burning trucks and backhoes and other equipments. There were also reports of liquidations by the NPAs of men in uniform and civilians that are against them. One of the high profile assassinations that they carried out in 1989 was that of US Army Colonel James Rowe, founder of US Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Course. It is also reported that the NPAs recruit children as combatants which is a violation of children’s rights. Because of their atrocities the NPAs were declared by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization and as so did the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.
It is estimated that the strength of the CPP/NPA has reduced dramatically in recent years. During its peak in 1987 the group has about 25,200 members with 15,500 firearms. By the end of 2009 their strength was only 4,702 with 4,895 firearms. The number of barangays or villages where it has influence was estimated at 8,500 in 1987, but in 2009 it was 1,077 or only 2.5% of the total 42,000 barangays.
The Philippines is now a newly industrializing country and is the 45th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. By 2050 the Philippines is projected by HSBC to become the 16th largest economy in the world if it can sustain its good economic indicators such as educational opportunity and democratic government or strong rule of law. Ironically the CPP/NPA depends on negative indicators like corruption, weak economy, and social instability in the government to sustain its armed struggle. Without these adverse conditions the people have no reason to support or sympathize with it. Worse, most people now believe that communism is a failed ideology. Judging from the steady decline of its memberships, the NPA’s chance to overthrow the government through armed struggle is indeed bleak, or that it would take them long years to succeed if they could ever do it at all.