While renewed fighting between Moro rebels and government forces in Mindanao dominates the headlines, the island's other long-standing conflict goes on.
The New People's Army (NPA) has been waging its so-called 'revolutionary war' against the government in Manila since 1969, and by the army's own reckoning, 40 years after the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was founded, its armed faction remains most active in Mindanao.
Depending on who one believes, the NPA saw in the beginning of 2009 with anywhere from between a few thousand and 20,000 soldiers or more nationwide.
Self-exiled communist leader Jose Sison recently claimed the NPA had 'tens of thousands' of members during a call to arms marking the party's anniversary last month.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ordered by President Arroyo to put an end to the insurgency 'once and for all' by 2010, puts the figure to be in the low thousands. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bartolome Baccaro has claimed the Maoist rebels are at their weakest in 20 years.
A military briefing given to the media at Camp Aguinaldo in Manila last August put their strength at fewer than 5,800 --the group having reportedly suffered a 20 per cent dip the previous year.
Despite that, the NPA, the armed wing of the CPP, remains the "biggest threat" to national security according to National Defense Secretary Gilbert C. Teodoro Jr.
The history of the NPA in Mindanao dates back to 1971 when a handful of inexperienced but determined communists established two cells -- one in Iligan and the other in Davao.
The years that followed saw it exploit widespread poverty among both indigenous peoples and poor peasants in the countryside, as well as among many Christian settlers.
By mid 80s, when the NPA was at its strongest, the rebels were outpacing their counterparts in Luzon and Visayas and were attacking and temporarily occupying remote town centers and setting up shadow governments as both a show of their military strength and political organization.
On several occasions the group launched battalion-sized offensives --subsequently deemed by their leadership to be tactical and costly mistakes.
Suffering huge and successive losses and succeeding only in alienating the local population, they suspected they were infiltrated by the military.
A series of bloody purges followed that almost decimated their ranks.
According to one of their own leaders in Mindanao, Ka Oris, the purge saw more than 600 party members, activists and supporters killed in the island alone.
The military command claims the NPA in Mindanao, at least, is no longer the ideological force it once was and is today dependent instead upon attracting restless and rootless young unemployed to its ranks from the countryside, according to Colonel Alan Luga of the 1001st Infantry Brigade in Compostela Valley who spoke to the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project in December.
Yet according to Ka Oris, the nom de guerre of one of fewer than 10 original local party members from Mindanao left after nearly 40 years in the communist underground movement, the rebel group has rebounded from its bloody past to re-establish a presence in "more than 2,000 barrios (villages) in 200 municipalities in 19 provinces in the island."
According to him, the NPA now operates "39 guerrilla fronts" in Mindanao alone and 102 nationwide.
Ka Oris says the rebel movement has learned from its past mistakes and now “strictly adheres to the Geneva Conventions and shows 'respect’ for human rights”
Yet at the same time, the NPA admits it still administers “revolutionary justice.” Lieutenant Vicente Cammayo may have just been released having been held captive by the NPA in Compostela Valley for almost two months but there were past instances of captured government soldiers and suspected government spies who were either killed after 'revolutionary trials' or murdered in 'partisan operations.'
Ka Oris tries to clarify his group's adherence to the Geneva Conventions: "We no longer allow minors to join the New People's Army," he says.
In the late 70s and early 80s, recruits as young as 14 and 15 years old were reportedly allowed to join the NPA.
An NPA commander, who declined to give even his pseudonym for security reasons, told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project that the average age of NPA guerilla is now between 20 and 25.
Contrary to the claims of Colonel Luga and his colleagues, the NPA also claim to have increased their political education of recruits.
But their sights are set on the population at large: "We have to engage in production and raising the level of consciousness of the masses," Ka Don, an aide to Ka Oris, told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.
"All units are given comprehensive tasks and are deployed to organize the masses," he said. Ka Don claimed that all NPA members are ordered to avoid civilian casualties.
"Officers will now face stiff sanctions for any civilian collateral damage," Ka Don said. During a press conference on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the CPP, Ka Oris said the NPA has standing orders not to fire on military targets inside civilian homes and communities and in civilian vehicles.
But that didn't stop the recent killing of a five-year-old girl, Kyle Manegro, who died after being caught in the middle of a fire fight with the military.
Ka Oris added it would be "impossible" for NPA units to determine the presence of civilians in military installations and encampments at all times.
"That is why we are enjoining civilians to refrain from living inside military camps and riding in military vehicles because these are legitimate targets of the NPA," he said.
The communist leader also defended the continued use of land mines by NPA units. "The military is spreading lies about our alleged illegal use of land mines. What is banned by international protocols is the use of contact-detonated land mines. We are not using them. We are using command-detonated explosives which are allowed by the Montreal International Convention."
Today, Ka Oris claims the CPP-NPA in Mindanao has almost approximated its armed and organizational strength when the rebel movement was at its peak in the 80s.
Last year, according to a statement of the Mindanao Commission of the CPP-NPA, the rebels were able to launch more than 300 tactical offensives and seized over 200 high-powered firearms in Mindanao.
In the Caraga Region, he claimed the equivalent of almost a company of government soldiers and militiamen were killed during rebel attacks in 2008 while the rebels suffered "only five casualties."
As recently as December 18 and on the eve of the AFP’s December 17 anniversary, a company of NPA guerrillas in their North Eastern Mindanao command said they seized 21 assorted firearms from a police station in the town of Tubay in Agusan del Norte during an attack on San Roque Mining Incorporated, a company owned by Congressman Edelmiro Amante.
Ka Oris dared the military to run after the NPAs who raided the police armory and closed the national highway from Ampayon in Butuan City to Tubay during the raids.
The rebels claim that rather than see their total destruction, the coming years will see "a more intensified level of guerrilla warfare."
Human right abuses
While charging the military with sustained human rights attacks on their members and those deemed sympathetic, the rebels are not immune to similar charges and have reportedly continued to kill suspected informers, government officials and civilians who they believe have links to the military.
Ka Oris insists his group's brand of "revolutionary justice" compels them to impose death penalty to individuals "who have incurred blood deaths to the people."
"We are the army of the masses," says Ka Oris in language seldom heard spoken seriously any more. "They [the people] run to us to get justice where our bourgeois courts cannot give them. It is our duty to implement the verdict of punishment by death if it so warrants," Ka Oris said.
All indictments and decisions by the "people's court", he added, will undergo thorough review from the highest territorial units of the CPP-NPA in the area depending on the gravity of the "crime" and the person involved.
But it appears the assassination of a businessman almost a year ago by NPA partisans in Davao fell foul of some internal procedures and it was swiftly followed by an apology from the Southern Mindanao Regional Party Committee.
AFP 'on target'
For their part, the army is not unduly worried about predictions being made by the NPA about the future.
In a phone interview with the Philippine Human Rights Report, AFP Chief of Staff Alexander Yano said the government is "on target" in reducing the NPA into irrelevance by 2010. "Defeating and reducing them into irrelevance is the same. We are on pace," Yano said.
He added that the communist rebels will be reduced to a mere police concern by 2010 and would no longer be treated as a national security threat.
Yano however begged off reacting to claims by Ka Oris that the NPA's armed strength in Mindanao has increased.
"We will be having a command conference in January and we will try to collate our figures then," the AFP chief said.
However, he conceded the NPA are most active in some parts of Compostela Valley, Davao City and the Caraga Region where the Mindanao Commission is reportedly based.
Major Gen. Armando Cunanan, commanding general of the army’s Eastern Mindanao Command (East Mincom) on the other hand, flatly belied claims the insurgents are gaining strength.
According to him, the actual number of the NPAs in Mindanao was down four per cent in 2008. East Mincom spokesperson Major Randolph Cabangbang said the total strength of guerrillas on the island is no more than 1,400 armed regulars.
"They have been reduced to criminal activities, preying on helpless businessmen," Cabangbang quoted the general as saying.
Cabangbang also maintained the NPAs are extorting money from small scale miners and big mining companies in Mt. Diwalwal in Compostela Valley to the tune of PhP 20 million (USD 425,500) a month.
"This money is being used to finance the expenses of members of the central committee of the CPP," Cabangbang said.
This figure, if true, reinforced observations that the NPAs have gained considerable control over the gold-rich Diwata ranges in Compostela Valley which is part of the Southern Mindanao Region of the communist movement.
But the military insists the number of tactical offensives claimed launched by the NPA in 2008 is wrong.
"We consider more than half of them as total lies," Cabangbang said.
And while it is may be true that the rebels have seized more than 200 high-powered firearms, majority of them were reportedly taken from "soft targets" like security guards and government militiamen.
The AFP chief of staff however conceded that the increase in armed activities of the NPA was due to the AFP's shift in the focus of its military operations to the MILF.
Otherwise, Yano said, the rebel group has reportedly suffered huge losses in personnel and territories in Northern and Central Luzon.
The AFP chief likewise said the number of guerrilla fronts in Mindanao can be misleading.
"They can easily split their fronts with just a skeletal organization to present some semblance of strength," he added.
In the midst of fighting, pressures continue for both the government and rebel forces to resume peace negotiations that were stalled in 2004 when the National Democratic Front, (NDF) the umbrella movement that represents the armed movement and its political supporters, insisted that President Gloria Arroyo’s government exert an effort to remove the "terrorist" tag imposed on them by the United States and the European Community.
Ka Oris said they have not abandoned the peace process but "conditions may not be ripe." He accuses Manila of reportedly ignoring provisions of CARHRIHL (the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law) signed between the NDF and the Philippine government during the Ramos administration in The Hague.
The NDF also rejected a "prolonged ceasefire" as a precondition to the resumption of the peace negotiations.
The NDF branded the government precondition as a move little short of surrender.
A ceasefire, it insisted, should be "a result of a comprehensive political settlement and discussion of substantial issues confronting the Philippine society."
Ka Oris accuses the government of continuously undermining the possibilities of the resumption of the peace negotiations.
"If there is anybody who wants to achieve immediate peace, it is us. Life in the cold mountains and on the run is very hard. But we cannot accept an unprincipled peace because the AFP and the government just want us to surrender," the communist leader said.
He likewise warned that any effort to extend the term of Arroyo beyond 2010 will only strengthen the CPP-NPA.
If that happens, he said, President Arroyo will go down in history as the "greatest recruiter" of the NPA.
Ka Oris added the NDF is willing to wait for the new government to replace the Arroyo administration and see if the peace process could move forward.
(The author is a freelance writer and former managing editor of both Sunstar General Santos and Sunstar Business Weekly.)