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The Fate of the People’s War

José Mariá Sison

Communist Party of the Philippines founder José Mariá Sison on the legacy of armed struggle, peace negotiations with Duterte, and what a left economic program should be.

NPA guerrillas in Sierra Madre, Philippines on November 23, 2016. Jess Aznar / Getty Images

Interview by
Denis Rogatyuk

This year marked the forty-ninth anniversary of the beginning of the armed rebellion by the New People’s Army (NPA) of the Philippines, alongside its political affiliates of National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The armed rebellion, initially concentrated on the island of Samar during the 1970s, grew to encompass practically of the Philippines, with the provinces of Mindanao, Isabella, and Tarlac having been the most prominent throughout the time of the rebellion. Most of the modern-day estimates place their strength at anywhere between ten thousand and four thousand fully armed fighters, with additional tens of thousands of Communist Party members and other supporters.

After surviving through six administrations of the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP), including the period of dictatorship and martial law of Ferdinand Marcos throughout the 1970s and 80s, the communist rebellion is now faced with a new challenge in the guise of the incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. Despite early promises of negotiating a lasting peace agreement and granting release to hundreds of NDF political prisoners, Duterte’s stance has flip-flopped between conciliation and hyper-aggressive tactics of confrontation, including designating the NPA and CPP as “terrorist organisations.”  The latest round of peace talks were once again cancelled, with Duterte spuriously claiming a need to consult the public further.

At the same time, the regime is finding itself in an increasingly difficult position, economically, politically, and internationally. The introduction of the TRAIN law, a package of regressive taxation that significantly increases the prices of goods, particularly fuel, has sparked major protests throughout the country.

The implementation of martial law on the island of Mindanao has had devastating consequences in the form of increased repression against political activists, trade unionists, and opposition supporters as well as the ordinary population. At least forty-nine extrajudicial killings took place between May 2017 and May 2018. These figures do not include the mounting death toll from Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which has resulted in an estimated twelve thousand to twenty thousand killings. The continuing diplomatic conflict with China over the rights to the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea is also showing no signs of de-escalation.

The legacy of the NPA’s armed rebellion is profoundly uncertain in this context. To understand where it and the Philippines stand now, we speak to José Mariá Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the chief political consultant to the National Democratic Front. Sison has been one of the major political figures throughout the entire period of the communist rebellion. His writings, analysis, opinions and poetry have been well-documented and publicized throughout the Philippine revolutionary movement. A political prisoner during the time of the Marcos dictatorship, he was granted amnesty in 1986 by the government of Corazón Aquino, and has been living in exile in the Netherlands ever since.

He shares his thoughts about the state of the peace talks, the economic program of the NDF and the current state of the Philippine government.


DR

Recently, a year after peace talks were broken off by the Duterte government, we’re seeing efforts by the NDF to revive them. Are you hopeful about the future of these talks?

JMS

We have been trying our best. We have gone through four rounds and the talks would collapse after the fourth, just when we were going to hold the fifth. We have also had seven rounds of back-channel informal consultations and these consultations appear to be promising.

Of course, the National Democratic Front expects a significant concession from the other side in exchange for the ceasefire — amnesty and the release of the political prisoners. There are now more than four hundred that need to be released, and then of course, there should be more as part of the deal of the interim peace agreement.

The most significant sections of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) need to be agreed upon, namely the agrarian reform and rural development; and nationalization, industrialization, and economic development.

DR

I wanted to talk in more detail about that last point, as it seems to be the most difficult to negotiate. From what I understand, CASER is the means of transforming the Philippine economy from its current neoliberal structure that’s dominated by foreign imperialist and multinational interests, to a socialist one — but through an intermediary step of industrialization and agricultural reform.

JMS

By pushing national industrialization, economic development, agrarian reform, and rural development, we are pressing the government to get off the old track of servility to foreign monopoly capitalism. It is a real test for the other side.

There are actually four points of the substantive agenda in the peace negotiations.

We have already finished one — the comprehensive agreement on respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. But this only serves to guarantee that human rights and international humanitarian law would guide the two sides. It would also ensure a good atmosphere for the ongoing peace negotiations as well as the intended just peace.

Next, we would move onto negotiations on political and constitutional reforms, where we would be tackling questions on how to carry out CASER and how to carry out the constitutional and political reforms. One of the key demands of the other side has been to give up revolutionary taxation. We say, before we talk about the functions of the people’s democratic government, let us first talk about the socioeconomic goals and how to carry them out.

The other side has also been considering the implementation of a “federal system.” We have already advanced the view that we can go along with federalism, provided that certain caveats are dealt with.

Federalism is a tricky question. It could be Duterte’s ticket to fascist dictatorship, and could possibly include dynasties, warlords, traditional bureaucratic capitalists, the landlords and the big compradores, the old bloodsuckers in the ruling system. Thus, a change in the form of government does not guarantee a change in the social and economic system.

It is also an expensive kind of arrangement. The Philippines is a country that is heavily in debt and would need to spend more on a more elaborate bureaucracy. If Duterte is fixed on certain ideas that are not democratic, you cannot expect the NDF to go along with him on the question of federalism.

I think there are good examples of unitary governments, and there are templates for that. The important thing is we have an experience of Marcos opting for a parliamentary form of government and doing away with the presidential form of government.

It was a trick to cover his real intention of implementing a fascist dictatorship, and using the period of transition to impose and eliminate the opposition and the revolutionary movement by applying martial law. Duterte has a choice of making the NPA the scapegoat of martial law but the NDF have been smart enough to strongly criticize Duterte, especially after his first six months in government.

Duterte IS quite different from previous presidents in that he initially wished to become the first “leftist” and first “socialist” president . . .

DR

In one of the articles in late 2015, you mentioned that he could become like the Pinoy version of Hugo Chavez.

JMS

In the months before his election and a few months later, words of encouragement were thrown in his direction. He first exposed himself as not knowing how to [keep] promises, when he told us of his commitment to release all the political prisoners through amnesty, which he himself suggested, on May 16, 2016.

He previously had a long period of cooperation with the revolutionary movement in the Southern Mindanao region. But I think even the revolutionary forces in Mindanao, despite the previous association, describe him as a bureaucrat capitalist who gained his wealth through bureaucrat capitalist operations and is quite capable of saying anything: left, middle, or right, whichever serves him at the given moment.

And, of course, Duterte himself explained that when he was mayor of Davao city, he was more flexible. Now that he is president of the Philippines, he is in defence of the entire state, and therefore he must be ready to bully or kill its enemies.

He talks his way into gaining the support of the military and the police. He is a power player, ensuring their support.

DR

So on one side, he has been trying to play the various political forces within his cabinet against each other, while in the international arena he has displayed a lot of contradictions and inconsistent behavior. He says he wants to move away from the US sphere of influence and towards powers like Russia and China. At the same time, he occasionally threatens conflict with China over the issue of resources in the South China sea, while heaping praise on Donald Trump. Do you think these machinations are mark of a skilled political opportunist, or is he simply insane?

JMS

When he first spoke about the multipolar world and how he could play off one power against the other, it seemed like he would be able to play the game to strengthen the position of the Philippines. But that’s not the case. Instead of being able to play off the contradictory forces in the world, he victimizes Philippine sovereignty.

He has made sure that the security treaties, agreements, and arrangements with the United States continue and in his cabinet he considers pro-US elements — particularly those within the security cluster, such as Eduardo Año — as most important. These are tested pro-US elements.

The problem for the Philippines under Duterte is that the overall US dominance in economy, politics, security, and culture remains overwhelming. Now let’s analyze the way he plays his China card.

Arroyo was the first president to let China go into a joint exploration of exclusive economic zones under the West Philippine Sea, hence how they found the trillions of dollars’ worth of oil and natural gas. The Chinese became more aggressive in claiming what is not theirs as theirs. Even after the International Tribunal decided that the ECNECS under the West Philippine sea belongs to the Philippines in accordance to the UN convention of the law of the sea.

Now Duterte wants the Chinese to participate in co-ownership and engage in exploration and development. That is his way of making the Chinese happy, without understanding the arithmetic of this deal. He begs for a few billion dollars’ worth of loans, with interest rates much higher than the ones offered by the Japanese companies. The Chinese corporations also require Chinese labor and armed security. The Philippines ends up losing on all possible angles.

In other words, Duterte brings the Philippines further into a hole in indebtedness. He is like a child dealing with toys and supposed threats to the state, such as the case when he was negotiating for the delivery of new weapons from Russia.

DR

How vulnerable is the Duterte government to other charges such as human rights violations resulting from the War on Drugs?

JMS

There are several issues currently facing the regime.

Resolving peace negotiations would be an attempt by him to try to turn things around. On all the major issues, his popularity has been eroding.

Chronologically, he thought he could project the image of a strongman and kill anyone who would oppose, because he commits the military to whatever he orders through, by turning them into criminals and undermining the rule of law.

There is reward for killing drug suspects and then you call on people to surrender themselves, and many surrendered themselves in the hope they would be cleared and eventually rehabilitated. But this is providing moral conviction for the police to ready a list of people to kill, and to fulfill their kill quotas.

There were too many cases of innocents being killed, including very young people who had nothing to do with drugs, and even children. What is unfortunate for Duterte, is as early as 2017, there was already a group of military officers, particularly among the Philippine Military Academy graduates, who opposed Duterte.

Even though we come from the left, we still recognize that there are some sane elements within the reactionary structures of the state.

The biggest problem with Duterte’s war on drugs is that it almost exclusively targets the “demand” side of the drug trade – the poor communities on the street level and in the urban slums. One of the three drug lords is Peter Lim. Duterte has stated before that he would kill him if he comes back from aboard, even though Lim has always been in the Cebu province, effectively a compadre of Duterte.

Duterte’s son-in-law is also involved in drug smuggling; he’s known as the drug lord of Davao city, just as Peter Lim is the drug lord based in Cebu city. There is something sinister about this war on drugs – it is meant to popularize and legitimize mass killing. There was a high potential for using that against the Left.

The Communist Party is alert to that. There is always talk that they would use the “Indonesian solution”, although it is not an option. The CPP has not been exposed in elections in the same way as PKI, effectively meaning that in order to kill a single communist, the army would have to kill one hundred innocents in the process. It has always been the problem for the US puppet governments in the Philippines and has prevented them from carrying out similar massacres.

The third mistake of Duterte was the scuttling of the fifth round of peace negotiations during the May-June period of 2017. His threat to destroy the NDF in Mindanao has not been fulfilled, despite the usage of martial law. The TRAIN law was designed to cover the extraordinary expenses for the military, police and intelligence operations.

It’s the neoliberal way of thinking, similar to Arroyo, who believed he survived the possibility of being overthrown by applying higher taxes and introducing the VAT. Duterte’s neoliberal advisers believed that by raising regressive taxes, they would be able to cover government expenses, reduce the deficit, and assure foreign creditors they would be paid back. The corresponding effect on the inflation has hit the ordinary people in the stomach.

Duterte is susceptible not only to a coup but outright elimination by elements of his own regime. The usual method of overthrowing the president, as shown in the case of Marcos and Estrada, is a combination of mass actions by a broad range of democratic forces and the withdrawal of the military support.

DR

I wanted to discuss the military situation at the moment. Could you tell us about the current size of the NPA and whether or not the label of “terrorists” and the implementation of martial law in Marawi diminished the NPA’s fighting power in any way?

JMS

The military keep saying that most of the strength of the NPA is in Mindanao, but the comrades in Mindanao have been tested by actions and strategic military operational plans since the time of Arroyo.

The revolutionary forces took care of themselves when they could not get that much indirect support by intensified offensives. They learned how they could counter-encircle those who thought they could strategically encircle the NPA in Eastern Mindanao.

Also, with the weapons they captured, the revolutionary forces created more guerrilla fronts outside of Eastern Mindanao, so now you have an all-Mindanao problem for the reactionaries.

It’s an old tradition in the revolutionary movement that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives. Where it began, the people’s war shone, even though the numbers were smaller.

Marcos organized the task force “Lawin,” with five thousand [military] against two hundred [NPA]. The leadership retained forces in Tarlac, and then shifted the forces to Isabella. In Tarlac, the revolutionary movement could train expansion cadres only by the tens, during the period of 1969–1971. In Isabella, the starting capital in armed struggle, with twenty rifles plus another twenty as donations from anti-Marcos allies, they were able to expand the mass base to 150,000 square kilometers from 1970–72 because the place was fertile with agrarian unrest. Isabella shone for a while.

After that, Southern Luzon had their own shining moments. But the most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time. Then came the time for Mindanao.

When a certain region becomes strong, it provides the tested cadres and commanders for when the weaker region needs more experienced cadres and commanders.

In the life and struggle of the revolutionary struggle, there is a combination of doing mass work, at the same time as giving your attention to the people’s war. Otherwise, you run the danger of [being] the roaming rebel band or doing police work against criminal elements and a few local tyrants. The people’s war means transferring the strength of the enemy onto your side by ambushing them. That’s the essence of fighting.

Mindanao has been able to share some of that strength to Luzon and Visayas and so you can expect more vitality from all kinds of revolutionary forces in those two provinces.

DR

Let’s talk about other peace negotiations around the world, such as the recent one signed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Some of the consequences of the peace treaty have been quite alarming for the FARC and social activists in the country. How do you think you can ensure that protections and guarantees for NPA comrades are part of any future peace agreement?

JMS

It is hard to compare the well-constructed and laid out process in Colombia with the one in the Philippines.

If you just look at the four items in the substantive agenda of the agreement [with Duterte], no harm has been done to the revolutionary movement. They even guaranteed that the victims of the Marcos dictatorship would be compensated.

I can say more about an established fact than about fears around the fate of the NPA after negotiations. In negotiating, according to revolutionary principles, you know when to negotiate, when to delay and when to exit. The moment your revolutionary principles and the rising interest of the people are not served any more, you can exit.

The revolutionary movement can be captured within the frame of the UN — dismantled, demobilized, and reintegrated. Even when “good” agreements with regards to social and economic matters [appear] to empower people, they are not implemented, but you conclude the peace agreement by signing the agreement to dismantle and decommission the people’s army.

In the case of the FARC in Colombia, I believe they did not learn from the 1980s when they were massacred, and we can see the assassinations and massacres occurring again. And I do not know why they had to agree to admitting to committing crimes and making amendments. There is an admission in engaging in criminal acts by waging armed struggle. They were overeager to proclaim unilateral ceasefire while they were still negotiating.

I believe that in the end game, the FARC ended up on the losing side.