While the Philippine government and New People’s Army (NPA) claim to advocate for a fresh start to peace negotiations to end the region’s oldest insurgency, state forces and communist rebels remain engaged in fierce battles that continue to cost both sides significant casualties.
The ongoing firefights have replaced hopes with doubts that President Rodrigo Duterte will be able to leverage his personal connections to the NPA to achieve peace in the country’s conflict-scarred southern region. His government earlier vowed to prioritize a peace process that quickly dissolved due to continued hostilities and a collapsed ceasefire.
Battles have since intensified. Early last week an undetermined number of armed NPA insurgents attacked a small town in Mindanao’s northern Agusan del Norte province that drove more than 350 civilians out of their homes when rebels reportedly advanced on Kitcharao town and started shooting at soldiers holding security operations in the area.
Earlier this week a government marine was killed and eight of his comrades injured when they were ambushed by NPA rebels in Mindanao’s southern Sultan Kudarat province. A week earlier two NPA rebels were also killed in a separate encounter in Camarines Sur in the northern Luzon island, home to the national capital, Manila.
The hostilities have continued despite both sides’ agreement to implement a ceasefire and pursue peace in February, underscoring the long-standing communist rebellion’s complicated dynamics and diffuse command control. Duterte expressed his frustration soon thereafter when he unilaterally scrapped the ceasefire, tagged the NPA a “terror group”, and declared an “all out war” against the rebels.
While visiting Davao, a region where Duterte previously served as mayor and the NPA is nearby deeply entrenched, the president ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to use all its military assets, including fighter jets, to bomb the rebels and “flatten their hills.”
When asked about Duterte’s call to heavily bomb NPA rebel positions, AFP chief of staff Restituto Padilla said all military operations underway against the insurgents will continue at a fully engaged state.
The Maoist insurgents have responded in kind. The NPA has conducted 62 ambush attacks against Philippine troops so far this year, killing 14 soldiers and wounding 36 others, according to a military report on the conflict’s death toll. The military claims to have killed 23, arrested 19 and forced 87 NPA rebels to surrender over the same period.
While Duterte seems to have lost patience with pursuing peace, his top deputies, including chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello and presidential peace adviser Jess Dureza, continue to insist the process is still alive, with negotiations supposedly set to resume in April.
Dureza admitted that the recent NPA attacks on government soldiers have been “disturbing” but also acknowledged that his team has pursued back channels mediated by Norway to restart the process. That includes an apparent vow to release rebel negotiators who were detained by authorities when the process came undone last month.
It is not clear yet, however, the NPA is wholly on board. Indeed, recent attacks on commercial targets signal an intensification of the conflict.
Earlier this month, a civilian passenger bus servicing a southern Mindanao route was torched by suspected communist rebels in Makilala town in North Cotabato province. Bello has since appealed to the rebels to “observe restraint.” NPA rebels have in the past burnt passenger buses on Mindanao routes when their owners fail to pay “revolutionary taxes” to the movement.
While the NPA’s numbers have dwindled from 26,000 under arms in the 1980s to around 3,200 at present, media reports have claimed that as many as 1,000 fresh recruits are prepared to join the movement as hostilities intensify in civilian areas. While small in number, the NPA is notorious for its savvy guerrilla warfare, including tactical ambushes and a class-based ideology that resonates deeply with poor farmers.
That’s one reason why the 100,000-strong AFP has been unable to achieve a military victory after more than four decades of fighting. The NPA will celebrate its 50-year founding anniversary in 2018, despite various governments’ attempts to bring the conflict to a mutually agreed close.
While the Philippines is now one of Asia’s top performing economies, with GDP growth of nearly 7% last year, little of that economic activity has trickled down to Mindanao. An estimated 25% of the national population still lives in or near poverty, a statistic that analysts say continues to fuel armed conflict in the country’s impoverished south.
Duterte’s government must also contend with a resurgent Abu Sayyaf rebel group that is now threatening regional trade through piracy and kidnapping-for-ransom on the high seas. Other Islamic rebel groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Maute Group, pose similar terror threats, particularly as Islamic State aims to make inroads in the region.
And the one long-standing rebellion Duterte had a fighting chance to resolve seems increasingly to have already slipped from his grip.
Noel Tarrazona has been a correspondent for Asia Times since 2007