Opinion piece posted to the Manila Times (Apr 27, 2020): The threat from the CPP-NPA is real (By Marit Stinus-Cabugon)
CITING recent attacks by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), President Rodrigo Duterte, in his April 24 public address, threatened to declare martial law.
There have been at least 15 encounters between government troops and the NPA between April 7 and 24. Majority of the encounters occurred after April 15, when the unilateral ceasefire of the government lapsed, though the NPA is still officially observing its own unilateral ceasefire.
At least seven soldiers have been killed and 11 have been wounded. Three soldiers, including a young officer who perished in Himamaylan City, Negros Occidental, were killed on April 19. On the same day, a soldier was killed in Masbate. Two days later, two soldiers were killed in Aurora province. The following day, two government troopers were wounded in an encounter in Davao City’s Paquibato district.
The April 19 encounter in Himamaylan City came only two days after 12 soldiers were killed and more than a dozen were wounded in a vicious battle with the Abu Sayyaf Group in Patikul, Sulu. The anger and frustration of the President are understandable.
But the question is whether martial law would really address the threat posed by the NPA. While the number and intensity of encounters between government troops and the NPA may be higher than during normal times and the CPP-NPA sees opportunity in the crisis, its short-term response is not military.
The crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has brought about “is bringing untold economic misery to millions of Filipinos” and the “situation is potentially leading to a period of social unrest without precedent” (Apolinario Gatmaitan Command-NPA Negros, April 24, 2020 statement). Because of this situation, the NPA, as directed by the CPP, is “giving full focus on its health and socioeconomic campaigns.” NPA units are penetrating rural communities to educate the villagers about the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), grassroots healthcare, nutrition and emergency food production. Non-traditional healthcare and collective food production are basic pillars of CPP-NPA ideology and survival. And they are entry points to organizing and mobilizing communities, that is, building a mass base.
These campaigns have become more relevant today with Covid-19 obviously presenting a health crisis without precedent and lockdowns everywhere causing loss of livelihood and disruption of food production and supply chains. Communities are becoming more isolated.
The NPA has also stepped up the propaganda war. NPA units in Negros are now more visible on Facebook, with frequent and immediate updates and statements.
Going back to the Himamaylan encounter, the Mount Cansermon Command-South Central Negros Guerrilla Front claimed that it was conducting a Covid-19 information campaign among villagers when it was attacked by the army. This NPA unit is the youngest among the five fronts in Negros, an “offspring” of the 2016 ceasefire and pullout of troops in 2017. It has been operating in the area of Ayungon (Negros Oriental), Himalayan City and part of Kabankalan City for about two years. The Mount Cansermon Command was responsible for the brutal killing of four policemen in Ayungon on July 18 last year.
Mahar Mangahas of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in his April 25 column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer asked, “How much hunger is there now?” The latest survey of SWS covered the last quarter of 2019. The hunger rate — at 8.8 percent — was then at its lowest since March 2004. However, the self-rated poverty survey for the same period showed that 54 percent of Filipino families considered themselves poor. That was before Covid-19 and enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
Accurate data on hunger and poverty help policymakers formulate appropriate responses. But because of the ECQ, SWS — and other private survey organizations — cannot gather data.
While the national government has been giving cash assistance and local government units (LGUs) are distributing relief goods, nobody knows if these will suffice to prevent hunger incidence from rising. Majority of affected Filipinos at this time appear to be those who live in the cities and who lost their jobs. While life in the countryside might seem easier this time, agriculture is mostly at subsistence level due to perennial lack of government support. Even something as basic as farm-to-market roads and irrigation systems are more often than not absent. In the countryside, the LGU is usually the biggest employer while local businesses survive with little, if any, support from the LGU. Some provinces like Aklan, Bohol, Cebu and Negros Oriental benefited from tourism, but when will the foreign tourists return? Thousands of overseas Filipino workers and seafarers have lost their jobs and can no longer provide for their families. Add to this the fear of Covid-19.
The threat posed by the CPP-NPA today is not in its military operations but in its strengthening and expansion of its mass base. If socioeconomic conditions deteriorate further, desperation and social unrest could follow — ideal conditions for the CPP-NPA to expand its sphere of influence.