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Jaime Padilla, a spokesman for the CPP-NPA, with his comrades in March 2019 at the 50th anniversary of the movement taking up arms in the Philippines. Photo: EPA

Will the Philippines’ anti-terror bill crush communists, or give them a boost?

  • The army is keen to use the new legislation to lump the Communist Party of the Philippines in the same category as groups such as Abu Sayyaf
  • There are also concerns the act will be used to ‘red-tag’ leftist organisations that hold seats in Congress, pushing some people towards the rebels
After more than five decades of fighting communist rebels, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is eager to use the country’s new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to decisively end Asia’s longest-running insurgency – by using the legislation to label these groups and individuals as terrorists.

Opinions in the Southeast Asian nation have long been split over whether the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military arm the New People’s Army (NPA) – which are dedicated to overthrowing the government – should be put in the same bracket as terrorist groups operating in the Philippines, such as the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, last week spoke collectively regarding the groups when he told reporters the armed forces welcomed the new law “because it added teeth to our effort … to put an immediate end to the many forms of terrorism”.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior armed forces officer said the ATA – signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on July 3 – would enable the army to arrest what the officer called “secret recruiters” for the CPP-NPA who operated within leftist organisations, including those that held seats in Congress.

These include the women’s rights group Gabriela, youth organisation Kabataan and the Bayan Muna party, from which he said the army was looking to “cut off the endless supply of fresh recruits”. Being accused by the Philippine authorities of having communist sympathies is a practice known locally as “red-tagging”.

Presidential national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon has openly called these leftist groups “terrorist front organisations”. The former armed forces chief, who did not reply to requests for an interview, wrote in a Facebook post last November that the organisations “recruit, provide logistics, do propaganda, provide bail money and cover up” for the CPP-NPA.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act into law on July 3. Photo: AP

The officer said the armed forces would ask the Philippines’ Court of Appeals to proscribe the CPP-NPA as a terrorist group as it “used bombs and extorted money from businessmen with the end goal of bringing down the government and seizing power”.

The new law fast-tracks the process of proscribing such groups to six months. A request by the government to label the CPP-NPA as a terrorist organisation has been pending in court since 2018.

However, foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr, a senior member of the Anti-Terrorism Council, has signalled that the new legislation was aimed at preventing potential terror attacks in the Philippines, instead of targeting the CPP-NPA.

“We have had insurgencies, the longest-running communist insurgency – that’s not terrorism,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“The purpose of the ATA is to prevent something that we have yet to experience in its full scale, that is, a terrorist attack … It’s aimed at innocent civilians, totally powerless against the carnage of a terrorist attack.”

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The law’s main sponsor, senator Panfilo Lacson, has given contradictory answers on whether communist rebels can be considered terrorists. In a January 2019 blog post, Lacson wrote that the “Communist Party of the Philippines’ ‘priority’ to oust a sitting president … should be an added reason to tag the New People’s Army as a terrorist group”.

But during senate deliberations on the ATA in February, Lacson accepted an amendment to the definition of terrorism proposed by minority floor leader Franklin Drilon to “differentiate terrorism from coup d’etat, rebellion, and sedition”.

NPA guerillas in formation in 2017. Photo: AFP

Former armed forces chief Rodolfo Biazon, who also served as senator, believes there is a difference between terrorism and the other crimes. “The target of terrorism is the general populace, while in rebellion, the target is the government … remember, rebellion carries a lighter penalty than terrorism [under Philippine law],” he said.

Biazon said “determining intent is a very wide grey area”, and the ATA gave the government and security forces much latitude. “All I have to do, if I am a policeman or soldier, is tag you as a terrorist and arrest you.”

The scope of the ATA has raised concerns that it can be used to arrest critics of the government without a warrant – and that it will have the opposite of its intended effect on the country’s communist groups by inadvertently becoming a boon for their recruitment.

Speaking by phone from Utrecht in the Netherlands, CPP founder Jose Maria Sison said that while the party opposed red-tagging, it would be “a big help to the movement”.

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Duterte was being “stupid”, Sison said of his former political science student. “Unwittingly, he is still the best recruiter of the NPA because anyone can be accused of being a communist terrorist. And that would drive so many people … underground. He makes it difficult for people to struggle legally, so he’s forcing people to resort to the armed revolutionary process.”

The president sought to complete a peace agreement with the communist rebels in 2017, only for talks to fall apart followed by the resumption of military operations against the NPA. The military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said more than 1,000 fighters joined the NPA during the talks.

Estimates of the rebels’ current strength vary; Sison said there were “around 10,000”, while the military estimates there are fewer than 4,000 armed regulars.

Damaged buildings in Marawi City, Mindanao, in 2017 after clashes between the Philippine Army and groups including Abu Sayyaf. Photo: EPA

Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, a former mass organiser for the CPP-NPA who now teaches political science and international relations at Tsukuba University in Japan, said the CPP-NPA never progressed beyond guerilla warfare as it could not resolve issues with the supply of arms and ammunition.

When asked whether the armed rebels and left-leaning congressmen and organisations posed a clear and present danger to the government and society, Quimpo said: “In terms of seizing power, nothing of that sort.”

He said there was no direct link between the legal leftist groups and the NPA, but “there would be secret cells” inside mass organisations.

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“The overall strategy of the CPP is a protracted people’s war. Even if the CPP has already been fighting for 50 years, they still believe they can win … the NPA would just continue to persist,” Quimpo said, adding that what could have a much bigger impact than the ATA were the deaths of key leaders who were now old and not very healthy.

Fidel Agcaoili, their chief peace negotiator, died on Thursday.

Robert Francis Garcia, a former NPA member who is now a peace advocate, said the military’s red-tagging would weaken but not crush the rebellion.

He said “a better alternative” was needed, such as “a truly transformative government that will undertake sweeping reforms”, including banning political dynasties and removing the practice of private companies lobbying the government for subsidies and tax breaks.

Former military chief Biazon urged caution in red-tagging and the expulsion of leftists from Congress.

“We need their voices so that we will know what [political, social and economic] changes might be considered, because this is all about trying to change us, not only them,” he said.