After the crisis in Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte could engage the Philippines in another security campaign targeting communist activists.

By Adrien Morin

National security in the Philippines has largely been shaped by the events that unfolded in Marawi City following the violent uprising of jihadi groups in the southern part of the country. The death of IS-linked Omar Maute (leader of the Maute Group) and Isnilon Hapilon (former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group) during a military raid on 16 October 2017 was a major win for President Rodrigo Duterte and his government. The Philippines’ security forces have since then been able to restore order in Marawi City and in the Mindanao region more broadly.

This brief lull brought much-needed respite to the Southeast Asian country, but one security crisis could conceal another. President Duterte signed, on 5 December 2017, a proclamation designating the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and its armed wing called the New People’s Army (NPA), as terrorist groups. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque explained that the decision was motivated by the CPP-NPA’s violent acts, and will be legally implemented “within the purview of the Human Security Act.” In practice, this means that the state will be allowed to “go after groups or individuals who are wittingly or unwittingly supporting the CPP-NPA,” particularly from a financial standpoint. A military official added that “the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] can now fully execute and perform its mandate without reservation and restrictions.”

The Communist insurgency in the Philippines

Prior to the uprising of Muslim separatist groups in the southern region of Mindanao in the ‘90s, the communist insurgency led by the CPP-NPA was, in the eyes of the Philippine government, “the most significant internal security threat.” The CPP was created in Manila in 1968 by Jose Maria Sison, a student and communist activist. Over more than four decades, the conflict between the Philippine government and leftist extremists, primarily associated with the CPP-NPA, has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives.

The CPP and the NPA were designated as criminal organizations through the Anti-Subversion Act of 1957, which was designed to outlaw the communist party (Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas created in 1930) along with its splinter groups. However, former President Fidel V. Ramos repealed this decision in 1992 and legalized the CPP, granting it the status of a political party. According to Marichu A. Villanueva from The Philippine Star, this decision was seen as a “confidence-building measure to convince the CPP-NPA (…) to return to the negotiating table and forge a formal peace agreement with the government.” However, she argues that these efforts prove futile and the CPP-NPA never gave up on their aspiration to “overthrow government by force and violence and establish a totalitarian regime that they espouse.”

Finally, one of the key aspects of the communist threat from the government’s perspective is that, unlike the Islamist insurgency confined to Mindanao, the CPP-NPA has nationwide presence in the Philippines, including the capital Manila.

Duterte’s position and the repercussions for national security in the Philippines

Shortly after taking office in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, who has friendly ties with the Philippines’ leftist electorate, stated his intent to de-escalate the conflict with the CPP-NPA. He implemented a ceasefire in August 2016 and even after its lifting (following skirmishes in the southern part of the country), he emphasized the necessity for dialogue and negotiations between the government and the leaders of the communist movement.

We can only speculate on what was Duterte’s real motivation regarding the Philippines’ communist insurgency back in 2016, but with the worsening security situation in the Mindanao region and the subsequent crisis in Marawi in 2017, we can easily understand the government’s intent to contain its security campaign to only one front (Mindanao). Indeed, the 2016-2017 violent unrests could have provided the CPP-NPA with an opportunity to strike the Philippine security forces while they were overwhelmed by their confrontation with jihadi groups. In May 2017, after Martial Law was declared in Mindanao to tackle the Islamist insurgency, the CPP-NPA warned against the possibility of the AFP imposing its rule and carrying out more abuses with extreme impunity, and called for its supporters to “plan and carry out more tactical offensives across Mindanao and the entire archipelago.” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in turn, warned the communist opposition not to aggravate the situation in Mindanao, threatening to deal with communist criminals “with or without martial law.”

Now that violence has decreased and order has been restored in southern Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte can grant more time and resources to tackling the CPP-NPA threat. Prior to becoming president, Duterte made a reputation for himself as the mayor of Davao City where his death squads killed, with impunity, at least 1,400 people between 1998 and 2016, mostly drug users, petty criminals and street children. He was even dubbed “The Punisher” by Time magazine. The Philippines’ president won the 2016 election running on a radical security agenda, promising ruthless policies against drug dealers and other criminals. He has stuck to his words. Duterte’s 15-month anti-drug campaign left at least 3,900 “drug personalities” dead while another 2,000 people were killed “in drug-related crimes and thousands more murdered in unexplained circumstances.”

Antagonism between the Philippine government and the communist movement is not a new phenomenon, but the designation of the CPP-NPA as terrorist groups marks a clear end to Duterte’s intent (if it ever existed) to deal with the issue through dialogue and negotiations. Nobody really expected “The Punisher” to turn into a peaceful and moderate negotiator after all, and the Philippines should perhaps prepare for yet another security campaign.

Cover Picture: a painted portrait of Rodrigo Duterte, © Thierry Ehrmann / flickr