In the mountains of Mindanao and elsewhere in the rural Philippines, guerrillas of the New People’s Army clash daily with government troops. But the fate of the 16-year-long, Communist-led insurgency lies in the cities.
The rebel forces are outnumbered, outgunned and often outfought in the countryside but are holding their own. The struggle in the cities is harder to gauge. It is largely a secret war, and it is just beginning. Advances are measured by the allegiance of the people, not in body counts.
The government puts the number of regular, armed guerrillas at 12,000. The rebels use a similar figure but claim 20,000 additional fighters in part-time militias and village defense units. Facing them are more than 150,000 members of the Philippine armed forces, plus 50,000 more in police units.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth has called the insurgency “manageable,” and Brig. Gen. Eduardo R. Ermita, an armed forces spokesman, said there is “no way” that the rebels can win a military victory. They control only 4% of the nation’s villages, the general said, and have infiltrated only an additional 8%. U.S. estimates of rebel control are higher.
Infiltration in Manila
Infiltration has begun in Manila, government spokesmen acknowledge, and there have been some rebel killings of opponents in the capital. But rebel activity there is nowhere near the scale of what is happening here in Davao.
Besides Mindanao, the main areas of rebel activity are on the islands of Negros and Samar and in the Bicol region of southern Luzon. But guerrilla activity has been reported in most of the country’s 73 provinces.
No Filipino is more optimistic about the government’s prospects in the rural conflict than President Ferdinand E. Marcos. “We will keep the rebels running until we run them to the ground in the next few months,” he said last month. “This is neither an empty threat nor an idle boast.”
The government’s statistics show an increasing level of armed clashes. Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, acting chief of the armed forces, says violent incidents related to the insurgency are averaging more than 12 a day across the country, compared to 10 daily in 1984.
Both he and Marcos attribute the increase to government initiative. The president said New People’s Army guerrillas used to initiate 80% of the clashes, but that this year the armed forces are initiating 60% of them.
“If you like to use body count as a measure, although I don’t,” Ramos said, government soldiers are being killed at a rate of three a day, unchanged from 1984, while guerrilla losses have increased from four a day in 1984 to seven this year.
Marcos quoted a captured guerrilla as saying that his comrades could do little more than “eat, sleep and run from government forces.”
Ramos, looking at the larger picture, describes the insurgency as an iceberg, with armed clashes--ambushes, raids and firefights between rebel and government patrols--representing just the visible tip of the struggle.
Largely out of sight is the rebel effort to mobilize the Philippine people in the war against their government and against Marcos, the man who has ruled from Manila’s Malacanang Palace for 20 years.
The Communists lead the insurgency at three levels: At the head is the Communist Party of the Philippines; the New People’s Army, the party’s military wing, is made up of both rural and urban guerrillas; the party’s political efforts are carried out through an organization called the National Democratic Front.
All three elements are illegal, and the identity of their leaders is secret. Party headquarters is believed to be somewhere on the island of Luzon, but the rural insurgency is strongest here on the big southern island of Mindanao.
And both government spokesmen and rebels say that Davao, the Philippines’ third-largest city, is the testing place, the laboratory, for urban guerrilla warfare.
Davao has long been a turbulent city on a fractious island. After World War II, underpopulated Mindanao, with its vast agricultural, lumber and mining riches, became the Philippines’ new frontier. Many of its people are immigrants from other islands.
In the 1970s, the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front waged an unsuccessful rebellion, hoping to win an independent Muslim state in the western and southern provinces. The movement is inactive now except for an occasional flare-up, but it continues to have influence in western Mindanao. Its leaders show no signs of joining the New People’s Army in its war against the government.
A Revolutionary Situation
With the collapse of agricultural prices in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Davao and its surrounding provinces teemed with the landless and jobless, men with grievances against local authorities and the national government in faraway Manila. It was a situation ripe for political exploitation.
By late last year, Mindanao and Davao had become the hotbeds of the insurgency. Violence and intimidation by both sides was rampant. But the government forces, carrying the weight of past abuses and neglect, faced a tougher task in trying to win the people to their side.
During a trip through the city, a knowledgeable guide described the scene:
“This is Agdao,” he said, adding that the district’s people are so far to the political left that it is called “Nicaragdao” after Sandinista-led Nicaragua. “Here on R. Castillo Boulevard,” the guide went on, “it’s a no man’s land after dark. . . .
“This is the Bangkaran district, the biggest market in town. Traffic cops can’t work here anymore. Three of them have been killed by the NPA right there, in front of the Mercury Drugstore. Bang, bang, they take his gun and they walk away. Right there. . . .
Victims of ‘Salvaging’
“That’s the Bolton Bridge. That’s where the bodies of salvaging victims are dumped--there in the river or in the marshy areas of Ecoland subdivision.”
(Salvaging is the peculiar word that Filipinos use to describe the murder of a civilian at the presumed hands of military or paramilitary forces. But at least a third of the killings in Davao--which have averaged almost three a day this year--are attributed to criminals or to personal vendettas.)
A ride to the barrio of Punta Dumalag, in a nearby rural area, produces another story.
Shanties line the seashore south of a sawmill. There are 300 squatter families here--some fishermen, some sawmill workers, many without work.
A 46-year-old woman who heads the Punta Dumalag Fishing Village Assn. pointed out the fences that border squatters’ shacks on both sides of the road. “At night,” she said, “the PC (Philippine Constabulary troops) get drunk and they come down the road, yelling at people to come out of their homes. But nobody comes out.”
Roads and Fences
The road belongs to the soldiers, but someone else clearly holds sway behind the fences.
The woman says Punta Dumalag is not a rebel-controlled area but concedes that at least six military informers have been killed there. “We have told the police we don’t want them here. This is a peaceful place,” she said.
Peaceful, perhaps, but poor. A medical student who runs a clinic there said most of the barrio’s children get only one meal a day. And the sawmill has missed its last two payrolls, a worker said.
This is the atmosphere and these are the conditions that breed the insurgency, said Col. Rodolfo Biazon, commander of the Philippine 3rd Marine Regiment in Davao. Biazon is known as a man who understands the problems.
Guerrillas Exploit Issues
The insurgency picked up steam in Davao with Marcos’ lifting of martial law in 1981, he said. Biazon said the rebels are using a number of effective issues against the government and its followers. He listed them:
--Many Filipinos, calling the way they are ruled the “U.S.-Marcos dictatorship,” feel they have been ignored, repressed or abandoned by the national government, and they blame the United States for supporting Marcos.
--Capitalism. The feudalistic practices of large landowners and plantation operators in the rural Philippines. Multinational companies, many of them American, are blamed for sucking wealth out of the island.
--Fascism, or militarization. Abuses of human rights by soldiers and police, including incidents of torture, killings and house-to-house searches without warrants.
These issues have been exploited by the insurgents, by the legitimate political opposition and by groups such as labor unions and students.
Exploitation of urban areas by the rebels begins block to block, barrio to barrio and can culminate in influence or control by the leftists. The initial infiltration is carried out by teams of two or three from either the Communist Party or the New People’s Army.
“ ‘How’s your water supply? How are the roads in this barrio? Has a cop beat up anyone here?’ they will ask,” Biazon said.
Then the rebels begin to hold teach-ins and make other efforts to politicize the people by emphasizing their legitimate grievances. At each level of organization, the implied threat against rejection grows. More guns are seen, and “taxes” for the insurgency are collected.
People are expected to give what they can afford. For companies, the tax is “negotiated” and, if firms hesitate, a burned truck or other damage encourages compliance.
In a successful organization effort by the rebels, the result is a barrio revolutionary committee, with representatives from various groups within the community--workers, students, women. The revolutionary committee becomes a shadow government in the barrio, providing intelligence for the party and the New People’s Army, and sometimes a militia--all under a cloak of secrecy. And, in effect, the NPA--referred to by its sympathizers as “nice people around"--becomes the law.
Soldiers and police rarely enter such organized barrios, never fewer than three men at a time and never on foot.
Similar organizational efforts are made in citywide groups. Students are asked about crowded classrooms and deficient laboratories, workers about their pay or the Learjet owned by the big boss.
Class Differences Stressed
At every level of infiltration, apparent class differences are pointed out: landowners versus peasants, business bosses versus workers, Malacanang versus the countryside.
Meanwhile, on the armed level, New People’s Army gunmen--organized into so-called “sparrow units"--impose revolutionary justice on individuals seen as enemies of the people: corrupt policemen who extort payments from cab drivers and others, barrio bullies, even adulterers.
Government officials are high on the list. Being a mayor of a city in Mindanao is risky business.
Normally there are two written warnings telling the target to mend his ways. If the warnings are not heeded, the “enemy” is shot. Assassinations tend to be brazen here--in a crowded street, on the steps of a church.
The goal is the allegiance of the masses. In the squeeze between government forces and the New People’s Army, few are able to remain neutral. “You have to take sides,” a young laborer said.
The Communists’ influence in Davao, according to Biazon, has been used selectively to turn mass demonstrations toward destructive action, inviting further polarization in the city. The danger for the party is that innocents will be killed, and some have been--tarring the credibility and Robin Hood image of the insurgency.
Sees Rebels Waning
If the battle for Davao is measured by control of the barangays (a political subdivision), Biazon thinks the government is winning. When he came to Davao a year ago, he said, 30% of the barangays were heavily influenced by the rebels. Now, he says, the figure is 18%. Leftists say it is far more than half and assert that the barangays where the military claims control are merely “occupied.”
Like the military commanders in Manila, Biazon and his regional commander, Brig. Gen. Jaime Echeverria, insist that the guerrillas in the hills can be handled.
Biazon commands 1,500 marines. Facing them in the rural areas of Davao, he said, is a New People’s Army company of 124 guerrillas, not all armed and all short of ammunition.
The rebel’s agaw campaign--literally “get the guns"--with rare exceptions nets only a few weapons at a time, taken from slain soldiers or assassinated policemen. There is no evidence of foreign arms supply.
Echeverria said that the rebels in the countryside “want to surrender by the hundreds,” and he added that those who “return to the fold of the law” say they were coerced into joining the New People’s Army.
But other military officers say rural youths join the rebels voluntarily, some seeking vengeance for some injustice, others for adventure. Journalists who have traveled with them say that many are hard, committed men.
Rebel leadership at the top level remains high quality, according to military and foreign observers, despite the arrests of many party and New People’s Army officers over the years. The top level leaders are still of middle-class origin, these observers say, and many of them reportedly are graduates of the prestigious University of the Philippines.
Jose Maria Sison, the man who founded the party in 1968 as a breakaway from the old Moscow-lining Communist Party here, is a University of the Philippines man. Arrested in 1977, Sison is held at a military camp in Manila.
Rodolfo Salas, a onetime university student radical, is believed to be the current party leader and Antonio Zumel, a former Manila newspaperman, is reportedly the head of the National Democratic Front.
Despite the claims of the military men, it is clear to most observers that government forces cannot stop the insurgency by arms alone. The government has launched a variety of civic action programs to satisfy the grievances of the people: building roads and schools, improving water supplies and the like.
Money is flowing from Manila, and many politicians, across the board, say good work is being done. But many wonder whether it will be sustained.
The reason for the insurgency “is discontent in the hearts of the people,” said Luis Santos, a former mayor of Davao, adding that it cannot be solved militarily. “When your son is sick you don’t get a policeman to beat him up.”