Philippines: The NPA at 38


Patricio N Abinales

On 29 March 2007, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) New People's Army (NPA) will celebrate its 38th anniversary. The NPA has largely survived on its own, amassing its weapons from carefully planned small attacks against government forces. Military victories in the countryside have been complemented by successes in 'revolutionary taxation'. Businesses and entrepreneurs operating in the rural areas have now come to include NPA extortion as part of their annual budgets, with such allotments sometimes going as high as 2 million pesos.

These triumphs have prompted the Party's eternal chairman Jose Ma Sison to encourage the formation of larger company-size units to replace the smaller platoons. But this move has been a major stumbling block for the NPA. Larger units will need better weapons and these can only come from abroad. Unless the Party taps into the illegal arms trade now prospering out of the Middle East, it will not be able to make that shift.

Moreover, the CPP's experience with arms imports has been largely traumatic. In its early years it botched two attempts to bring in arms from China, largely the result of the ineptitude of those assigned to undertake the task. In the 1980s, CPP emissaries also failed to convince the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Nicaraguans and the North Koreans to sell them sophisticated armaments.

But the bigger problem will be in the battlefield. The NPA may outmatch the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in guerrilla warfare, but the latter, despite its failings, is still a better fighting force, especially with the United States as expected coming to its aid.

The upgrading to company-size units was one of the major issues that led to the debates in the 1980s and the assassination of the Romulo Kintanar, the former NPA chief, by Sison loyalists in January 2003. In justifying the gangland style killing of Kintanar, the CPP reiterated its criticism of his attempt to 'prematurely regularize' the CPP (ie, shift to a company and battalion formation) under his leadership - an attempt that devastated the NPA.

But the dilemma has come back to haunt the Party today now that the NPA has just about returned to the level it was in 1980. The unfortunate thing is that none of its current commanders have the talent and capacity that Kintanar had in shaping the revolutionary army into a nationally potent force during the era of the Marcos dictatorship.

WATCHPOINT: Though almost returned to its strength as of 1980, the NPA lacks the operational leadership that it had during the 1970s. The war in the Philippine countryside will most likely enter into an enduring, even permanent state of intermittent small clashes. And in these constant exchanges of gunfire between state and revolutionary forces, it is the communities caught in between which will likely suffer.


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