Communism in the Philippines: On the Defensive

By Roger Fontaine, The World & I online magazine, March 1989

Few people in Manila talk about the communist New People's Army (NPA) and its struggle against the Philippines republic. Instead, the gossip is about the boom in real estate prices as Chinese gold rolls in from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A year ago, this town was on edge. NPA gunmen called sparrows hunted their prey, bagging a daily toll of policemen and soldiers as well as occasional bystanders. And this was not happening in some distant, dusty province, but in Metro Manila.

But like it or not, Filipinos still face a bear of an insurgency. The tenacious NPA seems to be settling in for the long haul. The strategy of the prolonged war has always been in their kit bag—they learned that art from Mao Tse-tung, who struggled for more that two decades before seizing power in 1949.

The NPA celebrates its 20th year in the field in March. Its parent body, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), was founded on December 26, 1968—Mao's birthday—and is still going strong.

NPA armed combatants are now estimated at about 23,000, 8,000 of them hard-core regulars. The NPA operates in all of the country's 73 provinces, including Metro Manila, and controls perhaps 20 percent of the barangays the basic unit of government in the Philippines.

The NPA's military strength is matched by its political organization and international network of support. The NPA and the CPP have over the years set up a myriad of interlocking front organizations, which are not shells. Labor, professional, youth, and women's groups work tirelessly for the party and its armed wing, the NPA.

The NPA, meanwhile, controls large parts of Luzon, Mindanao, and Visayas islands like Samar and Leyte. And the guerrillas continue to face an understrength, poorly equipped armed force that in the last few years has become po[li]ticized and fragmented. While that trend would not be new in much of the Third World, it is new here and thus is even more dangerous and debilitating. That it is a novelty is readily seen is the numerous failed attempts at a coup d'etat. What causes worry is that one day the Philippines military may get it right. In that case, the archipelago would quickly descend into the abyss of political instability. If an army cannot even organize a golpe, it is unlikely that the military will be able to run a country, particularly the economy.