April 21, 2010

Philippine reds export armed struggle

By Al Labita


MANILA - The communist-led New People's Army (NPA) in the Philippines, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, is not only active at home but also exporting abroad its expertise in guerrilla warfare to insurgencies in other Asian countries.

Some hardcore cadres, toughened by decades of fighting the security forces, have reportedly recently trained Maoist rebels in India and their presence is also being monitored in some

Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, where a Muslim insurgency has destabilized the southernmost regions.

How operatives of the NPA, one of Asia's longest-running insurgent groups, have been able to travel abroad and train other insurgent groups has baffled intelligence and diplomatic officials in the Philippines. "They could have posed either as businessmen or students," says a senior Manila-based diplomat.

The NPA, which has gained notoriety for its brutal killings and terror tactics, is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which is chaired by Jose Maria Sison, who now lives in exile in the Netherlands. The rebel group was formed in 1969, a year after the CPP was launched, to wage a "protracted people's war" against the government.

Alarmed by persistent reports of the NPA‘s export of its expertise in guerrilla tactics, Manila's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Coordinating Authority (NICA), called Manila-based foreign diplomats to a meeting this month to warn them of the communist insurgency's still potent dangers, both at home and abroad.

In talks later with reporters, NICA director general Pedro Cabuay, a retired two-star army general, admitted that it was the first time his agency had received credible reports that the NPA was training communist rebels on foreign soil. The NICA works closely with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Asian intelligence counterparts.

"We will find out how these NPA cadres were able to travel abroad," Cabuay said. The NICA was coordinating with the Indian intelligence agency to identify the Filipino communists reported to have trained Marxist rebels, particularly in the western Indian state of Gujarat, he said.

Police recently sustained heavy casualties following a recent clash with Maoist Naxalites, considered by New Delhi as the country's "greatest security threat". Some Naxalites captured by India's security forces reportedly confessed that NPA rebels from the Philippines had trained them in guerrilla tactics.

Inspired by the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, the Naxalites derive their name from the Indian town of Naxalbari, where their revolutionary cause started in the 1960s. As of January 2009, 10,000 to 20,000 Naxalites were active in 13 of India's 28 states fighting for communist rule in a conflict that has taken thousands of lives.

''It is not only in India that we have monitored Filipino communist cadres, but also in other Southeast Asian countries,'' said Cabuay. ''We sighted a few of them in Thailand."

"We could not yet say that they are training local insurgents in the region, but the sighting alone would probably mean something," he told reporters. "Maybe they are coordinating or perhaps they may go into something deeper later on."

Cabuay said that while Sison, 71, is living in exile, the CPP leader was mobilizing his NPA followers through the International League of People's Struggle (ILPS), an organization that Sison formed.

The ILPS, founded on May 25, 2001 in Zutphen, the Netherlands, seeks to promote democratic struggles and oppose exploitative policies of multinational companies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. It currently has about 40 chapters across the world.

"Through the ILPS, the CPP leaders are linking up with their counterparts in other countries. They were successful in organizing the league, which is actually one way of exporting Philippine communism to other countries," Cabuay claimed.

Cold War roots
The CPP was outlawed during the martial law government of then-president Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1970s, but the restriction was lifted by his successor, Corazon Aquino, in the spirit of national reconciliation, in 1986.

Freed by Aquino after spending nine years imprisoned in solitary confinement, Sison led negotiators of the National Democratic Front, then the CPP's political arm, for peace talks with the government to end the drawn-out communist insurgency. The talks bogged down after the CPP insisted on a power-sharing scheme with the government, a demand that officials considered unconstitutional.

Sison, a former English professor at the state-run University of the Philippines and who once studied in Indonesia, later embarked on a speaking tour abroad denouncing the government's alleged human-rights abuses. In October 1986 in Bangkok he accepted the Southeast Asian Writers Award for a book of his poems.

While visiting the Netherlands in early 1987, on the military's recommendation, Aquino's government revoked Sison's passport and charged him with crimes under the anti-subversion laws of the Philippines.

Forced to seek political asylum in the Netherlands, Sison was believed to have ordered the NPA in the 1990s to purge its ranks of so-called deep-penetration agents planted by the government. Under the NPA's bloody "Oplan Zombies" operation, hundreds of suspected military spies were killed.

Meanwhile, the NPA's dreaded "Sparrow Unit", headed by Romulo Kintanar, liquidated dozens of politicians, judges, soldiers and policemen. While taking lunch at an upscale Japanese restaurant in the business district of Makati city he was gunned down by his former NPA comrades on a mission to arrest him in 2003. Kintanar, suspected then by NPA leaders to be a government spy, was the nephew of the then military intelligence chief, General Galileo Kintanar.

The military now claims that the NPA is a "spent force" and that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union its derisively refers to Sison as the "only living communist in Europe".

From a high of 25,000 fighters at the height of Marcos' martial law regime in the 1970s, the NPA's armed strength has diminished to an estimated 5,000 - a figure that the rebel group strongly disputes as understated.

Officials attribute the supposed success of the counter-insurgency campaign to the government's socio-economic and political development programs aimed at addressing the root causes of the NPA's ideological insurgency, namely poverty, illiteracy and unemployment.

Many of the NPA's known leaders are now in jail and those who have been freed have often turned over a new leaf and joined the political mainstream. One of them, Satur Ocampo, a former business journalist, is even running for senator under the Nacionalista Party of the businessman billionaire and presidential aspirant, Manuel Villar.

With the recent reports of the NPA's overseas activities, the military says it aims to reduce the NPA to an "insignificant force" by June 30, partially as a tribute to its outgoing commander-in-chief, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose six-year term ends that day, and partially to assuage rising international concerns.

Officials say the NPA has resorted increasingly to banditry, extortion and other crimes to financially sustain its struggle. But the NPA's export of expertise to regional insurgent groups hints at an entrepreneurialism aimed at keeping its communist armed struggle in business.

Al Labita has worked as a journalist for over 30 years, including as a regional bureau chief and foreign editor for the Philippine News Agency. He has worked as a Manila correspondent for several major local publications and wire agencies in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

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