Poverty and de­spair breed new gen­er­a­tion of Philip­pine rebels

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In the latenight hours and amid the chirp of crick­ets, Ka­tryn wel­comed a hud­dle of ex­hausted Filipino jour­nal­ists in cheer­ful spir­its like she was home. “Cof­fee?” she asked with a com­fort­ing smile. Com­rade Ka­tryn is her nom de guerre, how­ever, and for her, home is a rebel en­camp­ment con­cealed in the rain-soaked wilder­ness of the Philip­pines’ Sierra Madre Moun­tains. The 24-year-old walked away from her fam­ily two years ago to join one of the world’s longest-rag­ing Marx­ist re­bel­lions.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, a few dozen New Peo­ple’s Army guer­ril­las lugged M16 ri­fles and gre­nade launch­ers on a plateau where red ham­mer-and-sickle flags adorned a makeshift hall. Most wore mud-stained boots while cook­ing over wood fires or guard­ing the pe­riph­eries of the en­camp­ment, just 3 kilo­me­ters from the near­est army camp. They’re part of a new gen­er­a­tion of Maoist fight­ers who re­flect the re­siliency and con­straints of an in­sur­gency that has dragged on for nearly half a cen­tury through six Philip­pine pres­i­den­cies while Cold War-era com­mu­nist in­sur­gen­cies across much of the world have faded into me­mory. They are driven by some of the same things as their pre­de­ces­sors, in­clud­ing crush­ing poverty, de­spair, gov­ern­ment mis­rule and the abysmal inequal­ity that has long plagued Philip­pine so­ci­ety.

“The New Peo­ple’s Army has no other re­cruiter but the state it­self,” a young rebel, Com­rade May, told The As­so­ci­ated Press. She joined the re­bel­lion two years ago af­ter her fi­ance died of kid­ney fail­ure be­cause his fam­ily was too poor to af­ford the ex­pen­sive dial­y­sis treat­ment. A lowly paid fac­tory worker, May couldn’t do any­thing. Gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tals over­whelmed by swarms of in­di­gent pa­tients failed to give him im­me­di­ate care. “His fam­ily gave up and re­served the re­main­ing money for his cof­fin,” said May, who now serves as a rebel medic for fel­low guer­ril­las and des­ti­tute vil­lagers be­yond the gov­ern­ment’s reach.

Ka­tryn came from a mid­dle-class fam­ily that could af­ford a car, a house and ed­u­ca­tion. She wanted to be­come a jour­nal­ist, but got pro­foundly dis­af­fected by a gov­ern­ment and laws she said could not pro­tect the work­ing class, in­clud­ing her fa­ther, who lost his job as an en­gi­neer for join­ing a trade union. She said she went un­der­ground as a left-wing activist and bid good­bye to her fa­ther, her mother, who was a for­mer teacher, and a life of mod­est com­forts. “It was dif­fi­cult. I cried,” she said.

Flow of in­sur­gency

Now ad­justed to rebel life, Ka­tryn said she’ll stay for good. She agreed to face news cam­eras with just a dash of red and blue paint - the col­ors of the rev­o­lu­tion - to cam­ou­flage her iden­tity. The re­bel­lion’s longevity is best per­son­i­fied by Jaime Padilla, or Com­rade Diego, who was in­tro­duced as the new rebel com­man­der and spokesman in a re­gion that has seen the ebb and flow of the in­sur­gency. Now 69, he took up arms when then-dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos de­clared mar­tial law in 1972, largely to quell the spread­ing com­mu­nist in­sur­rec­tion that be­gan four years ear­lier.

Don­ning a newly de­signed cer­e­mo­nial khaki uni­form topped by a Mao cap, the folksy rebel leader with a ready smile gave an up­beat as­sess­ment of the re­bel­lion. The mil­i­tary, how­ever, says it has largely beaten back the guer­ril­las in most of the prov­inces south of Manila where Padilla’s rebel forces have had a pres­ence. Bat­tle set­backs, sur­ren­ders and in­fight­ing have weak­ened the rebel group, which is black­listed as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion by the United States. A con­fi­den­tial Philip­pine gov­ern­ment as­sess­ment ob­tained by the AP says the guer­ril­las had de­clined to 3,800 fight­ers with more than 4,500 firearms in the first half of the year, with about 700 of the coun­try’s 42,000 vil­lages af­fected by the in­sur­gency. The in­sur­gent group “re­mains as a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity due to its stance of not aban­don­ing the armed strug­gle,” the re­port said.

Ups and downs

“It’s true that the armed strug­gle has gone through ups and downs, that’s a part of his­tory,” Padilla said. But he added that the re­bel­lion “will not dis­ap­pear be­cause of the fun­da­men­tal needs of the peo­ple. The prob­lems have per­sisted, and that’s the plat­form of the re­bel­lion.” Founded in 1968, the rebels’ com­mu­nist party has held peace talks with six Philip­pine pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing Ro­drigo Duterte, whose rise to power in June sparked rebel op­ti­mism due to his sear­ing an­tiUS rhetoric, pop­ulist pro-poor stance and ap­point­ments of at least two left-wing Cab­i­net mem­bers. Both sides de­clared sep­a­rate and in­def­i­nite cease-fires in Au­gust.

But the guer­ril­las found them­selves in a dilemma af­ter Duterte was ac­cused of gross hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions for his anti-drug crack­down, which has left a large num­ber of poor sus­pected drug users and deal­ers dead. Some of the slain sus­pects were rebel fol­low­ers who were never in­volved in drugs, Padilla said. Duterte’s re­cent de­ci­sion to al­low Mar­cos’ burial at a he­roes’ ceme­tery, his walk­ing back on his an­gry threats to scale down Philip­pine en­gage­ments with the US mil­i­tary and rebel al­le­ga­tions of mil­i­tary vi­o­la­tions of its own cease-fire have damp­ened the op­ti­mism. About a month ago, Padilla’s rebel com­mand of­fered to pro­vide se­cu­rity to Duterte, call­ing him a pa­triot and sus­pect­ing that Amer­i­can forces may covertly take steps to kill or oust him over his anti-US stance.

Af­ter Mar­cos’ burial at the he­roes’ ceme­tery, the com­mu­nist party de­nounced Duterte for show­ing “gross dis­re­spect and in­sen­si­tiv­ity to the Filipino peo­ple’s suf­fer­ings un­der the bru­tal mar­tial law rule” and urged him “to re­verse this his­tor­i­cal wrong” or risk fac­ing mount­ing protests and po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion. But Padilla said the guer­ril­las will re­main sin­cerely en­gaged in Nor­way-bro­kered peace talks that have given them respite from decades of fight­ing that is es­ti­mated to have left about 40,000 com­bat­ants and civil­ians dead. “While in a cease-fire, we con­tinue to con­sol­i­date our ranks, our re­cruit­ment of our forces from the mass bases who are ready to re­volt,” Padilla said. “We can talk to (the gov­ern­ment) at the ta­ble to re­solve the peo­ple’s prob­lems,” he said, but added, “We’re al­ways pre­pared for any breakup and con­tinue our armed strug­gle.” — AP

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