“If [you] find [yourselves] in an armed encounter with communist rebels, kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.” Those were the orders of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, addressed directly to soldiers last March, with his administration entering its final stretch. “Forget about human rights,” Duterte added, “that’s my order. I’m willing to go to jail.” Six years earlier on the campaign trail, Duterte had vowed to end the insurgency, waged by the Maoist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) since the 1970s, via peaceful means if he became president.
Yet with just weeks left in office after his successor is elected on 9 May, Duterte is set to join the list of Philippine leaders in the post-1986 democratic era to have failed to end the NPA’s campaign. This is despite peace talks having taken place under all six presidents since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, and despite efforts by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops to inflict a decisive military blow. Duterte, as the first president to hail from the rebel heartlands of eastern Mindanao, was better placed to end the insurgency than his predecessors, so what explains the latest failure?
A short-lived peace dialogue
Upon winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with the NPA in his first State of the Nation address. Talks got underway that August, with four rounds of dialogue held in Oslo, Rome, and Amsterdam over the next year. By November 2017, the peace process was dead. Rebel attacks resumed and a fragile truce between the two sides collapsed, after Duterte refused to release political prisoners. Dialogue was terminated by the government, which labelled the NPA and its political parent body—the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)—as terrorist organizations.
In the years since, Duterte’s presidency has seen unrelenting clashes between soldiers and the NPA, and frequent rebel ambushes in their rural strongholds in eastern Mindanao, across the Visayas, and northern Luzon. Relations between the government and the CPP—still led by its founder, Jose Maria Sison, now 83 years-of-age and and living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands—fell to an all-time low under Duterte, a former student of Sison’s while studying at university. In 2021, the government designated Sison and another 18 senior CPP leaders as terrorists, later applying the same label to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which represents the CPP in formal peace talks.
Manila has repeatedly ruled out reviving political dialogue and Duterte has stated that unless rebels stop attacking military patrols, “no peace talks can ever succeed under me or any other president.”
With peace negotiations dead, Duterte’s alternative policy was to establish a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Since 2018, the task force has overseen the work of provincial peace panels, set-up to initiate dialogue between local political and community leaders and NPA ground commanders, in an effort to reduce violence. In a parallel process, the government has also encouraged rebels to surrender in return for livelihood aid, including housing, jobs training, and cash handouts, via the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Programme (E-CLIP). Duterte has praised these two initiatives for “addressing the root causes” and deviating from the “traditional military approach,” yet despite impacting some localities they have not altered the national picture.
‘Red-tagging’ and AFP crackdown
The NTF-ELCAC has also been caught-up in accusations of ‘red-tagging,’ reviving a harmful practice associated with the Marcos dictatorship, whereby political opponents—including journalists, rights activists, and lawmakers from the left-leaning Makabayan bloc—have been publicly labelled by the state as communist sympathizers. The proliferation of red-tagging is a visible symptom of Duterte’s authoritarian governance style in which dissent is rarely tolerated and hostile rhetoric from the top openly encourages vigilante violence. The main figurehead of the NTF-ELCAC, Gen. Antonio Parlade, was forced to resign last year to “ease pressure” on the body, after the repeated use of his position to attack government critics and spread fake news about the insurgency undermined peace efforts.
While the NTF-ELCAC has pushed on with its artificial outreach to the NPA, the AFP has at the same time maintained that it can end the insurgency on the battlefield. Speaking in December, new chief-of-staff of the military, Lt.-Gen. Andres Centino, rallied troops to defeat the rebels by the conclusion of Duterte’s term in office on 30 June. While similar deadlines in recent years have been left unmet, the latter stages of Duterte’s presidency have seen an intensified counter-insurgency campaign. On 16 August last year, 19 rebels were killed during an AFP raid on an NPA camp and explosives factory in Dolores, Eastern Samar province, while on 1 December a similar operation in Miagao town, Iloilo province, killed 16 rebels. The AFP has also targeted senior figures in recent months, killing the chief of the NPA’s National Operations Command, Jorge Madlos (alias Ka Oris), in Bukidnon province, and the most senior rebel commander in Mindanao, Menandro Villanueva (alias Bok), in Davao de Oro.
But despite these losses, the NPA has retained its strength nationally. The reasons for this are rooted in both geography and history—and explain the endurance of the NPA beyond Duterte’s presidency.
Strategic and ideological edge
Across an expansive maritime nation of more than 7,000 islands, the NPA has a broad geographical presence, and is active in at least 69 of the Philippines’ 81 provinces. This makes the group more or less impossible to defeat via conventional military means. The strategic adoption of guerilla tactics, whereby rebels operate out of densely-forested, mountainous, and largely inaccessible terrain as a deliberate choice, plays to their advantage, with the NPA able to take soldiers and police officers by surprise by ambushing them on rural roads before retreating. Rifles, often looted from army bases, and rudimentary explosive devices capable of delivering a quick blow, are the insurgents’ weapons of choice in a war designed to demoralize the enemy rather than defeat it outright. A commitment to this grinding approach, along with the decentralized nature of rebel units, which are divided into small groups of fighters moving between temporary camps, have enabled the insurgency to persist.
Also in the rebels’ favor is their ideological coherence. Since the formation of the CPP in 1968, and the NPA a year later, both entities have remained closely intertwined, with minimal factionalism or splintering. Sison, who founded the movement as a young student activist, remains at the head of the CPP-NPA today, with the strategy he outlined in the 1970s in Philippine Society and Revolution and Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War still underpinning the group’s anti-capitalist stance. The refusal of the NPA to give up its core demand to replace the Manila government with a socialist system has blocked progress in peace talks under six successive governments—including Duterte’s.
A steady stream of new recruits has also been key to the NPA sustaining its campaign. Despite the NTF-ELCAC reporting the surrender of 20,500 rebels since Duterte came to office in 2016—a figure overstated for propaganda purposes, which likely includes mostly family members of NPA fighters and ‘supporters’ of the movement rather than armed rebels—the AFP acknowledges that the NPA still has 3,500 fighters across at least 43 rebel fronts, with around 1,000 fighters based in the rebel stronghold of eastern Mindanao. These estimates are broadly in line with the NPA’s strength over recent decades, which since the early-2000s the military has reported annually to be around 3,000–4,000. After suffering losses, the NPA retains the ability to replenish its ranks from the impoverished rural areas in which it operates, which economically lag far behind Manila and main provincial cities.
Taking on the next president
It is clear that after five decades of insurgency, the only way to end the conflict is a peace deal with the CPP at the national level. With Duterte having ruled out talks for his remaining weeks in power, what odds the next president can tame the NPA? If Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.—the current favorite, with Sara Duterte-Carpio as his running mate—were to win the election, it would likely be more of the same. While he may not repeat his father’s crackdown of the 1980s when the NPA was at its strongest, he has vowed to support the NTF-ELCAC and is likely to replicate Duterte’s strategy: initially offer peace negotiations but revert to a strongman approach upon the first sign of fracture.
Marcos’ main rival, liberal candidate Leni Robredo, has at times criticized the NTF-ELCAC and struck a more conciliatory tone, pledging to deflect from “militaristic approaches to ending internal armed conflict” in order to create a “conducive environment” for peace talks. Her opponents in the present administration, some of whom Robredo accuses of red-tagging her, might argue that Robredo’s plan would backfire, enabling the NPA to use any peace process as a useful pretext to quietly bolster their ranks and regain strength. Yet any president looking to reboot political talks would face a similar risk; as all six previous incumbents of Malacañang have discovered. That Duterte—once a friend of Sison, and sympathetic to the socialist cause—failed to secure peace, only emphasizes the size of the task.
A version of this article is also published on Asia Sentinel.