The ‘new’ in the communist New People’s Army signifies many things and each deciphering is helpful to understand why this rebel force has never been defeated by successive governments.
The original communist-led people’s army was the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon and Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan. The Huks were a guerrilla force that fought for our independence during World War II; later, it aspired to establish a communist state in the country. The Huk rebellion was quashed in the mid 1950s; although some veteran Huk commanders became pioneering members of the NPA in 1969.
The name NPA was both appealing and threatening. For the oligarchs and landlords, it could have reminded them of the Huk menace. For the poor and landless, it probably gave them hope and courage. And for the radical youth, it certainly inspired them to become part of a movement that wanted to create history.
The Communist Party, which was re-established in 1968, could have chosen a more sinister name for its armed wing but it proved that it has a sense of history when it acknowledged the popular legacy of the Huk and the various armed uprisings in the provinces. The message was simple yet powerful: The NPA will continue the ‘Unfinished Revolution’ of our ancestors.
It was appropriate to herald the rise of the NPA as a new development in Philippine politics. Suddenly, the Filipino everyman has an army that can challenge the private armies of politicians. But looking back, it seemed only logical that a people’s army like the NPA would surface in the 1960s. During that time, the nationalist movement was resurgent, the youth were rebelling against the Establishment, and traditional politics were moribund. The newborn NPA was welcomed as an alternative and fighting weapon that can replace the decaying political order represented by elitist parties.
Fast forward to 2014. Should the 45 year-old NPA drop its tag as a political force that represents the ‘new’? How can it remain ‘new’ when it is already old?
No new army from the margins has superseded the NPA. It is still the people’s army that has the potential of garnering greater political and military clout. More importantly, it still stands for new politics. It continues to be guided by the principles of the national democratic revolution. In other words, the NPA remains the army of the weak that aims to dismantle the oppressive structures of bourgeois and feudal rule in the country.
Some are ridiculing the NPA as it persists in asserting its revolutionary principles instead of maximizing the so-called democratic space in the post-dictatorship era. Many intellectuals reject the violent methods of the NPA. The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the real and symbolic violence in society. The NPA thrives not simply because of its aggressive recruitment drive but mainly because the unjust system continues to make rebellion a necessary and attractive choice for the marginalized. If the NPA combatants are determined in their struggle, it is because we have despotic reactionaries who are unwilling to give up or even share their wealth, pork, and power.
As a revolutionary force in the past half century, the NPA has already achieved numerous political and military victories. It has waged a Maoist guerrilla war in an archipelago, the first in the world. It is officially the longest continuing communist insurgency in Asia. It is neither winning at the moment nor is it losing the war. Surprisingly, it remains the top security threat in the Philippines despite the repeated pronouncements of the government that it is already a dying army.
It is quite difficult not to admire the NPA for its pursuit of genuine land reform, environmental justice, and human rights protection. It is a trailblazer in promoting women empowerment, LGBT rights, and grassroots democracy. It has immensely contributed to the preservation and development of Filipino language and IP heritage. Mountaineering is more fun if it is done the NPA way.
In recent years, the NPA became more active in the cyberspace. For a supposedly underground organization, it is prolific in posting statements, primers, photos, and videos through its website. Its programs, goals, and accomplishments can be read online. It is perhaps the most transparent armed group in the country.
But is it still a people’s army? Is it still affectionately referred to by many rural villagers as Nice People Around? The NPA claims majority of its members are still from the peasant sector. In many provincial towns, it is the preferred sumbungan ng bayan.
Interestingly, it is the anti-Left bashers who are indirectly affirming that the NPA remains an approachable army of the poor. Every once in a while they would ask natdem activists to remind the NPA about some of its alleged excesses and blunders. Some are guilty of red baiting but others seem serious in their intention to reprimand the NPA. It is to NPA’s credit that even its ideological adversaries are convinced that it can be influenced through informal networks. Try sending a similar message to the bureaucratic and corrupt-ridden military of the Republic of the Philippines.
At 45, the NPA looks youthful. Its membership, tactics, goals, politics – they all stand for something new and revolutionary.
How long will the NPA endure? We know that there are World War II veterans but we haven’t heard about NPA veterans or soldiers who participated in the war against communist rebels. Why? Because World War II already ended in 1945 while the civil war is ongoing. After 45 years, the NPA is still the great enigma of Philippine politics.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org