Philippines: The Philippines' ''Dirty War''

2006

Patricio N Abinales

As of 17 May 2006, one hundred and twenty leaders of legal organizations identified with, or sympathetic to, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) had been killed by unknown assailants. The human rights group Karapatan has released a higher figure, claiming that 601 leftists had been killed since Gloria Arroyo became president in 2001. The government as might be expected disputed the figures, coming out with a lower count of 83. Not since the final years of martial law, when the Marcos dictatorship gave de facto permission to military operatives to carry out extra-judicial killings (then referred to as 'salvaging'), has the number of leftist deaths been this high.

Leftwing organizations blame the government for launching a 'dirty war' and Arroyo officials have responded with their own spin: the killings were done by rogue civilians and soldiers wanting to stop the spread of communism, or they were signs of yet another series of internal executions to purge the CPP of military spies. But the 'dirty war' explanation appears more convincing because many claim to have seen all this happen before.

During the first three years of Corazon Aquino's presidency, well-known leftist leaders involved in national politics, who had decided to test the democratic space, were being gunned down by hit men on motorcycles or vans with tinted windows. In the provinces, where the reach of the national media was then limited, killers barged into the homes of known radicals and murdered them. The aim then was to neutralize what the military regarded as a CPP strategy to reclaim lost ground in the legal political arena arising from their strategic error of boycotting the 1986 elections that eventually led to the ouster of Marcos.

The 2006 killings seem to follow the same pattern: broad daylight assassinations by a mobile team of killers, denials by the government after accusations by the Left, promises of investigation to mitigate the protests and diminish public attention, and eventually consignment of the story to page 6 of the newspaper.

But there is also one significant difference. The 1986-89 killings were initiated by factions inside the military who used the killings to force Aquino towards a rightwing position and the communist movement to further splinter. They succeeded: Aquino and the CPP terminated peace talks and renewed their war against each other. The CPP lost the initiative as the assassinations only served to worsen the splits within its ranks, particularly when some of those killed were rumoured to be military agents.

The 2006 killings, however, come at a time when the communist movement has recovered from its internal crisis. The CPP's New People's Army (NPA) is back to roughly its late 1970s fighting capacity and pro-CPP legal groups back to full strength. In the 'legal struggle,' the Party's front organizations have been able to get four of their leaders elected to the House of Representatives and have reasserted their presence in schools.

Where the CPP remains weak is in its inability to rejuvenate its 'urban mass movements'. CPP-led mobilizations today are a poor version of their 1980s precedents and observers ascribe this to the lack of capable urban cadres (the CPP leadership is not anymore dominated by graduates from the country's top education facility, the University of the Philippines) who, in the past, deployed creative means to bring people out onto the streets. But there have been efforts by the Party to address this problem, and one indication of this is the vigorous expansion of provincial and city chapters of existing front organizations.

This is where the killings come in. The assassination of leftwing leaders in the provinces and the towns outside and far from Manila is aimed at undercutting the CPP's mass movement plan. By killing activists who are taking the lead in the expansion, pro-CPP groups would be deprived of crucial leadership; the killings also scare any potential 'united front' ally from joining the mobilizations.

The killings however have simply emboldened the CPP leadership to declare the return of a politics reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship era. And it was precisely in this kind of polarized condition that the revolution thrived.

WATCHPOINT: The impact of the recent killings on the possibilities (or impossibilities) of peace talks between the government and the CPP/NPA have yet to be played out.

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