Philippines Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz stated recently that the threat posed by the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, has made it imperative for Manila to negotiate an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is one of two major Muslim insurgent groups in the southern third of the archipelago. (The other, the Moro National Liberation Front, has already signed a peace agreement.) The government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has asked the U.S. State Department to leave the MILF off of its list of international terrorist organizations in order to promote the peace talks. Cruz calls the NPA “the greatest internal security threat to the country now.” What’s significant here is that Manila is downplaying the problem of Muslim insurgency while emphasizing that of the resurgent Maoist People’s War, whereas the U.S. has depicted its own renewed military presence in the islands exclusively as an effort to crush al-Qaeda-linked Islamic terrorism.
U.S. troops were in the Philippines (a U.S. colony from 1899 to 1946) from 1898 to 1992. They vacated Clark Airfield and Subic Bay in 1992, and thereafter the Congress of the Philippines banned foreign combat troops from the country. The “war on terror” brought U.S. forces back in February 2002, as “military instructors” into what was touted at the time as the “second front” in that war. At the time of course the world was thinking about Afghanistan, the neocon plan for Greater Middle East regime change wasn’t clear to many, and al-Qaeda and its allies were the main issue.
So the U.S. targeted the Abu Sayyaf Group, depicting it as an al-Qaeda affiliate (even though Macapagal-Arroyo herself dismissed the connection). It is in fact a tiny bandit operation specializing in kidnappings and ransom collection, sometimes in collusion with corrupt military officers. I assumed in early 2002 that the real U.S. target was the NPA, which of course as a communist-led organization has little in common with al-Qaeda’s Islamic ideology. But the presence of a group like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines allowed the U.S. to reestablish a military presence that might be deployed in the future to assist the Army of the Republic of the Philippines (ARP) in anticommunist counterinsurgency. The U.S. has a very long history of that in the country, dating back to the campaigns against the communist-led Hukbalahap from 1946 to 1955.
At present, on the one hand, the U.S. wants to portray its small revived military presence in the Philippines (“Operation Balikitan”) as a response to 9-11 and the sort of terrorism al-Qaeda represents. On the other hand, it knows that Muslim separatists are never going to seize power in the Philippines and thereby threaten U.S. interests. The real nightmare is Manila under the red flag. So step-by-step since 9-11, using the flexible concept of “war on terror,” Washington has among its other actions moved against the Maoists, in the Philippines and elsewhere. As early as January 2002 Colin Powell, as first ever U.S. Secretary of State to visit Nepal, site of the world’s most advanced Maoist movement, told reporters, “You have a Maoist insurgency that’s trying to overthrow the government and this really is the kind of thing that we are fighting against throughout the world.” On August 9, 2002, the NPA and CPP were placed on the State Department’s terror list (one that they hope “stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations internationally”). On October 28, 2002, in response to U.S. pressure, the European Union added them to its own list. Meanwhile the founding chair of the party, Jose Maria Sison, in exile in the Netherlands with the status of a political refugee, was specifically targeted. On August 12, 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department took the unusual step of declaring Sison, who now serves as the Chief Political Consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) in ongoing negotiations with the government of the Philippines, an “individual terrorist.” The Dutch government succumbing to U.S. pressure terminated his benefits in August 2002. The EU again under pressure designated Sison a “terrorist” by February 2003. A respected revolutionary leader, without charges pending against him in any court in any country, was now a “terrorist.” Dutch authorities intimated that U.S. authorities wanted him extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for an American officer’s death at the hands of the NPA. Since the event took place while Sison was in prison, they really want him to stand trial for fomenting a Maoist insurrection in one of their former colonies.
Today the 36-year-old People’s War, according to Agence France-Press, enjoys a “resurgence” and boasts of recent successes. According to a recent statement by the CPP, the “NPA has significantly increased the number of its full-time Red fighters. It is now operating in more than 130 guerrilla fronts covering significant portions of nearly 70 [out of 78] provinces, in around 800 municipalities and more than 9,000 barrios.” While the ARP pooh-poohs such figures, and argues that the NPA with “only” 8000 troops is a “paper tiger,” Cruz estimates it will take 6 to 10 more years to quell the insurgency. The Maoists themselves report: “Currently, the NPA has a sum total of at least three divisions or nine brigades or 27 battalions of full-time Red fighters with high-powered rifles. These are augmented by tens of thousands in the people’s militias and further on by hundreds of thousands in self-defense units of the mass organizations.” Surely U.S. and Filipino authorities alike take seriously the prospect that the Philippines may someday look like today’s Nepal, or the Peru of fifteen years ago. But while Manila openly makes anti-Maoist counterinsurgency its priority, Washington has not yet in public much stressed the Filipino Maoist threat. The U.S. press ignores the People’s War in the Philippines; most Americans have no idea that there’s a Maoist insurgency there or that communism is anything other than totally passé on the planet. This nonchalance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Washington continues to focus on the issue of Islamic “ideologies of hate” and the need to refashion the “Greater Middle East.” Perhaps it is best that it remain so preoccupied with that particular losing cause, while elsewhere real revolutionaries, real anti-imperialists, quietly make advances.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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