Communist insurgents ambushing a police patrol and disappearing into the jungle is an image from a bygone era, but for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte the rebels of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) are a persistent reality. Having plagued presidents since the 60s, it is hardly surprising Duterte used his sanguine relationship with the Communists to kickstart peace negotiations.
Furthermore, with openly socialist individuals handpicked for policymaking positions, and negotiations continuing with the NPA’s political counterpart, hopes for a final peace are running high. However, the optimism surrounding a possible deal should not overshadow the questions of how durable a negotiated settlement will be, and if the deal will ultimately dismantle the NPA. And even if negotiations fail, especially given Duterte’s recent announcement to lift a ceasefire with the NPA, the insurgency may still defy government offensives.
Whether Duterte pursues peace or casts a heavy hand, the NPA will not necessarily demobilise during his administration. The insurgency survives off continued grievances in the countryside and the opportunities provided to it by a feeble state, as Patricio Abinales, Francis Domingo, and many other scholars have argued. Unless Duterte makes substantial strides towards resolving these issues, the NPA will survive.
Poverty in the Philippine countryside is undoubtedly a driving grievance that fuels support for the NPA. A mixture of infrastructure underdevelopment and social inequalities between wealthy landlords and disgruntled labourers creates a milieu from which the NPA can easily enlist grassroots support. With a sympathetic mass base, recruitment pools are ever-present, intelligence and offensive efforts against insurgents are frustrated, and the capacity to extract revolutionary tax from local businesses remains unimpeded. Significant government reforms toward a socialist system, or at the very least towards developing neglected rural communities, will be necessary to erode this foundation of NPA influence.
Herein lies the rub – the Duterte Government would face significant opposition to structural reform from entrenched business circles, who are likely to oppose progressive agrarian and labour reforms. Additionally, public support for policy concessions to the Reds is not guaranteed as the Social Weather Station’s Fourth Quarter report for 2016 shows. While it indicates that public satisfaction with Duterte’s reconciliation efforts is much higher than the attempts of his predecessors, the sample was not as enthusiastic for Communist reconciliation as it was for a majority of Duterte’s other policy initiatives. Allegations of broken ceasefires by Philippine armed forces could also allude to reluctance within the military establishment to show lenience to insurgents. Accordingly, the policy revolution desired by the NPA in order for it to disarm would encounter massive resistance from multiple sectors of Philippine society.
Even if the negotiation process succeeds (or continues positively), the NPA could actually benefit from policy reforms yielded by the discussions. With any government concessions perceived as the fruit of NPA pressures, outlets of grassroots support may be maintained. Anticipated prisoner releases will also bolster NPA morale and operative numbers. In addition, the legitimacy bestowed upon the NPA by the negotiations may lessen disincentives to the NPA’s financial contributors. If anything, Duterte’s negotiations will provide breathing room to the insurgency, rather than act as its death knell.
Closely related to the Government’s policy struggles are its operational incapacities. A historical constant of the archipelago has been the central authorities’ inability to extend its coercive capacity to its more far-flung regions. As RAND reported in 2009, a factor of NPA sympathy is their ability to provide law and order where oft-corrupt government officials could not. Adding to the security apparatus’ troubles is the increasing need to build coercive capacities against other violent rebel groups and other states in the region, thus siphoning energy away from anti-NPA efforts. The result is a Government that cannot easily militarily eliminate or displace NPA insurgents, especially when insulated by local sympathisers.
The incapability of extending governance to NPA strongholds also poses another problem – even if the Duterte presidency is significantly more socialist, especially with prominent leaders of the left in policymaking circles, why would the NPA bother disarming if the armed forces lack the capacity to discipline these remote areas? Furthermore, why would remote communities support military and central law enforcement when a history of abuse by security forces still lingers?
So even if rural development is achieved, it does not spell the disarmament and disbandment of the NPA. A vacuum of effective authority would still exist in the hinterlands, of which the NPA will remain the locally-supported actor to fill this role. The Communists would also wish to retain a military capacity in case the government reneged on any aspects of the deal.
Regardless of the outcome of President Duterte’s most recent burst of anti-NPA rhetoric, the insurgency cannot be expected to disband or disarm. Until concerted efforts towards rural development and extension of governance are made under the new administration, the best case scenario for the negotiations is a pacified but operative NPA, continuing to survive on the margins where a weak government cannot yet displace them.