[OPINION] The Philippine military and its hypocrisy

We tend to forget that the communist New People’s Army (NPA) has long been decimated. Even the military is burying this fact, as it has come to embrace its own propaganda that the guerrillas and their fronts are now the gravest threat to this nation.

You only need to hear Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr to recognize the steep decline of reason in the armed forces. Each time I see Parlade’s Facebook posts, I imagine the old guards cringing  – not so much over Parlade’s bad prose (which could be forgiven) but for his being shrill, his being crude, his being unsophisticated.

I started covering the military in 1988, when the communists were at their peak with anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 armed regulars and urban fighters. The post-Marcos Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) took this challenge to heart, convinced this was going to be a long, intense battle that could only be won by the brightest minds. 

So the best combatants and sleuths lived in the camps or their cars; staked out safehouses for months and years; mapped battlefield attacks with intelligent intelligence; targeted the underground’s political and armed commands; and zeroed in on strongholds.

A senseless matrix, such as the favorite of Malacañang and the Duterte military, would not do then. It had to stand on 2 or 3 layers of verified connections that would serve as a guide for street work, not fleeting propaganda. It was clear that propaganda was an indispensable spice in the war, but not the main weapon.

The military I knew had a single goal then: decapitate the communist leadership through arrests and intrigue, and win the hearts and minds of the people who support them.

Which was what happened. 

At some point, the Camp Crame detention center had as its prized trophies both the chief of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), Rodolfo Salas, and the NPA, Romulo Kintanar, as well as the entire Party executive committee. (Until 1991 when the Philippine National Police or PNP was established, Camp Crame was a military camp.)

Intelligence agents also infiltrated the communist underground and sowed divisions deep enough to trigger a bloody internal purge of so-called state agents and “adventurists” within the Party.

The purge caused bitter debates in the movement, causing an ugly and public Party split in 1992 that prompted Fidel V Ramos to predict the insurgents’ “irreversible decline.” From its peak, the NPA’s numbers declined to around 5,000 by the time Ramos stepped down from the presidency in 1998. 

The Parlades (Philippine Military Academy, 1987) and the Ed Años (PMA, 1983) of the world were young officers then, in awe of what their seniors had accomplished. Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, in fact, was molded in the same methodology and thinking, that it's a shame he would tolerate this current institutional hysteria

The communist pill

Let it be said in clear terms: by 2018, in the second year of the Duterte administration, the NPA was down to 3,700 armed members nationwide, according to the military’s own estimate. Their strongholds have been reduced to probably 3 or 4 regions – parts of Eastern Mindanao and Caraga; portions of Calabarzon and Bicol; some patches in the Cordilleras.

Range this against some 85,000 Army troops that in 2018 were allocated half of the total military budget of P195.4 billion against the NPA . 

The guerrillas are now but a poor shadow of their old selves, where command is nebulous, control is regionalized, and leadership is aging.

What’s all the fuss then? Why is Parlade and his peers acting like the communists are at Malacañang’s gates? Why are they suddenly casting a net so wide to catch even the angry but harmless ones?

Why are the PMAers who should know better now sharing memes and fake news to hype up the communist threat even as households struggle with the pandemic and China continues to invade our seas? Why are Army soldiers not as agitated when Chinese ships cross our borders, even swallowing organizational pride when their chief of staff begged Beijing for an untested COVID-19 vaccine?

Why, for the love of God, are they buying attack helicopters at this time to finish off the rebels?

To be blunt, what drug have the generals been taking? 

Ah, it’s the commie drug – the one that leaders inject in the veins of the military when they want to keep its loyalty. 

It’s the same drug used by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when she battled charges that she cheated her way to victory in the 2004 presidential elections and crushed mass protests and attempted mutinies against her. (READ: War with the NPA, war without end)

It’s the same drug that Joseph Estrada failed to use (as he deployed the military instead against the Moro rebels, who are more sturdy and complex), which probably partly explains his short-lived presidency. 

And it’s the same drug that Duterte is giving the military, to keep it too busy and obsessed – and awash with counter-insurgency cash – to be thinking of plotting against him or watching China. 

Is the military not understanding this or refusing to see it? 

Friend of the NPA

If there’s anyone who was Red long before these so-called communist activists, it is the armed forces' commander-in-chief. As the longtime mayor of Davao City, he tolerated and aided the guerrillas on one condition: that they did their attacks elsewhere but his city. 

When the mayor became president in 2016, he made history in the same way Noynoy Aquino made history when he welcomed Moro guerrillas to Malacañang: he opened the gates of the presidential palace to top communist leaders and, after that, released their senior comrades from jail.

On the 5th month of an unprecedented ceasefire with the rebels in December 2016, Duterte declared: “I am the President belonging to the Left. The Reds would never demand my ouster. They will die for me, believe me.” 

Duterte walked the talk: he appointed key Leftist leaders to his Cabinet and mobilized the bureaucracy for an ambitious and generous peace process with the rebels’ political arm, the National Democratic Front.

Yet here we are: the military would be unforgiving toward young Filipinos in search of themselves through activism, but chooses to forget that Duterte was actually in bed with the guerrillas for decades, culminating in the rebels' support for his presidential bid in 2016.

I would have struggled with this irony if not for the fact that the armed forces did condone Duterte during those years. Because like the guerrillas, they were also the beneficiary of his largesse. Each time the commanders in Eastern Mindanao ran out of cash or needed more vehicles or wanted to party, Mayor Duterte offered succor.

Keeping a distance

What to do in the face of this Duterte-NPA lovefest, was the penultimate question at Camp Aguinaldo in 2016. They know Duterte long enough not to spite him in public. So, in the guise of protecting institutional integrity, they kept distance from him.

Remember that time not too long ago? When the military would absolutely have nothing to do with the PNP’s drug war? When it refused to be dragged into Duterte’s harassment of then-senator Sonny Trillanes? When the armed forces punished officers who spread fake news about journalists? When it stood valiantly against China and its incursions into the West Philippine Sea?

That was a period when the AFP played the adult in the relationship and where, in the words of a retired general, it showed it was “not a second-the-motion institution.” 

One would hope it was going to last. 

But the President is the better politician here. He got the message and gave the AFP its drug of choice. He eventually parted ways with the communists, ended talks with them, and gave the go-signal to jail, maim, or kill them via the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

Targeting the legal base

The government’s final gambit to end the 5-decade old insurgency, which will be facilitated by a tougher anti-terror bill, is to bring the war to the unarmed or the political base of the guerrillas – couched as a “whole of government approach.” (READ: 'Terror law': The pet bill of the generals)

As early as 2018, for example, the justice department issued a list of 600 “terrorists” who ought to be covered by the weaker anti-terror bill at the time, the Human Security Act. Intense red-tagging of the voter base of the extreme Left followed, but they survived the onslaught, with 4 party lists the military tags as “Red” winning seats in the 2019 elections. 

While it is true that the NPA has only a few thousand armed men, argues the military, the guerrilla army is backed by a formidable base of roughly 2 million Filipinos, based on the votes garnered by the 4 parties in the last polls.

For years the military believed that as long as the NPA had this advantage of legal representation in Congress and on the streets, the only way to defeat it is to wipe out its legal fronts.

This is where the military is wrong. 

Part of the reason the Left survived the bruising 2019 campaign is the residual effect of the open space afforded them by Duterte after he won as president 3 years prior. Part of the reason, too, is the violent drug war that solidified the protest movement against the established order. And the two-million base is already a huge slash from these groups’ partylist heyday years ago.

But the military need not do the math or divine politics – because that’s not their business.

They only need to remember the hard lessons from 50 years of counter-insurgency: rebels thrive on government abuse and the hysteria of an armed forces that thinks it can defeat them through terror.

The biggest communist recruiter, sirs, is you know who. Surely you must know that? – Rappler.com 

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

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