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Dr Ron May
In recent weeks Philippine newspapers have headlined warnings that 'Communist rebels continue to gain ground'. For what the figures are worth, it has been reported that the strength of the New Peoples Army (NPA) - the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) - recorded an 'unprecedented increase' in December 1999, reaching 10,600. This represents a marked recovery from a low point in 1995. NPA units are now said to be operating on 70 guerilla fronts in thirteen areas of southern Luzon, central Philippines and Mindanao. There have also been reports of arms shipments from China destined for Communist insurgents.
These reports come in the wake of a series of violent incidents attributed to the CPP/NPA and its hardline breakaway group, the Filipino Workers Revolutionary Party/Revolutionary Proletariat Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB). In recent weeks these have included: an attack on an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) patrol base in Mindanao, in which two militia were killed, attacks on army bases and ambushes of AFP and militia personnel in southern Luzon and on Bohol, in which twelve AFP and militia personnel were killed, and bombing and strafing of the Shell Pilipinas and Petron oil companies in Negros Oriental and the Department of Energy in Manila, in protest against oil price rises and 'the exploitation of workers by the oil cartels '.
The escalation of Communist operations follows a breakdown of talks, begun in 1993, between the Philippine government and the Netherlands-based National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The NDFP withdrew from negotiations in May 1999 after the Philippine government signed a controversial Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. Subsequently, the government resumed talks with the ABB, but these were discontinued in December 1999 after the ABB had presented a list of demands which included the release of political detainees, decriminalization of political offences, and implementation of livelihood projects in the countryside. The ABB has described its actions as a 'wake-up call' to the Estrada government and threatens to maintain its terrorist strategy until its demands are implemented. Intelligence sources have also reported the creation within the NPA of a new group, the Bagong Hukbong Bayan Liquidation Squad, to target for assassination senior police officers and politicians in Metro Manila.
Presidential adviser on the peace process, Manuel Yan, has said the Estrada government is prepared to 'bend backwards' for peace, but Yan and President Estrada, frustrated at the lack of progress in negotiations, have also vowed to assert the government's authority. A National Peace Forum, headed by former electoral commissioner Haydee Yorac, has been established to carry on negotiations with the Communist rebels, and a number of local peace fora have been created to negotiate directly with Communist units at the local level - a process National Security Adviser Alexander Aguirre describes as 'localization of the peace process' (but others see as designed to undermine the Left's national leadership). The President has also pressured the Netherlands government to expel NDFP/CPP leaders Jose Maria Sison and Luis Jalandoni, who have operated out of the Netherlands for a number of years.
More worrying developments have come with the announcement in early March that some 35,000 Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) personnel are to be mobilized (taking the total number of these militia to 67,000) to boost the drive against Communist and Muslim rebels, and reports that right-wing vigilante groups (notably the National Alliance for Democracy, an umbrella organization of some 120 paramilitary groups, and the notorious Alsa Masa) are being revived with the support of the military. As in the 1970s and 1980s, such efforts fail to recognize the underlying causes of increased militancy - particularly the national government's inability to implement effective policies of poverty alleviation, and growing resentment at the cronyism surrounding the Estrada administration.
WATCHPOINT: Military initiatives seem more likely to escalate social unrest than to reduce it.
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