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The Philippines' Maoist insurgency: Where are we now?

Image credit: DVIDSHUB (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The Philippine government announced on Monday that the Marawi conflict has officially come to a close. For the last five months, all eyes have been on the painstaking clearance operations in Marawi, and things will almost certainly remain that way well into the post-clearance operations. This begs the question of how the Philippines’ other long-running insurgency has fared whilst out of the limelight.

From the smouldering ruins of Marawi to a palm oil farm some 190km east in Agusan del Sur. On 22 September, the same day the AFP retook the last bridge that crosses the Agus River in Marawi, some 40 members of the New People’s Army (NPA) conducted an assault on a palm oil farm, causing US$40,000 worth of damage. On the same day, 50km southeast of Marawi in Cotabato, AFP troops were involved in an engagement with at least 20 NPA militants. But the fighting isn’t just concentrated in the restive Mindanao region: on 20 September in the rural Nueva Ecija province, 220km north of Manila, the AFP were reportedly engaged in one of the fiercest clashes with NPA militants this year.

So who are the NPA? Established in 1969 as the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the NPA has waged a ‘protracted people’s war’ against the Philippine government for nearly five decades. The intensity of the NPA’s insurgency has fluctuated as a result of government policy, internal purges and its level of external support, peaking as an organisation in the 1980s.

The NPA today is still very much an active guerrilla force, with an estimated 3,800 members fighting from some 120 bases nationwide. Although the NPA no longer has the strength to commit battalion-sized formations in conventional attacks as it once did, it still largely follows a strategy of rural-based guerrilla warfare with the enforcement of a ‘revolutionary tax’ to fund its operations.

If we look back just over 12 months ago, it would appear that Duterte’s administration was making serious gains in establishing a pathway to peace with the NPA. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, Duterte revealed his willingness to engage with the NPA and release political prisoners. In his first address to the nation, Duterte even declared a unilateral ceasefire. Whilst this was shortly revoked after the NPA failed to reciprocate the gesture, this would pave the way for peace talks in Norway in August. It was this first round of negotiations in Norway that would begin an indefinite, unilateral ceasefire from both sides.

By November, however, it was clear that Duterte’s patience was waning. Duterte publicly declined the demanded release of 130 political prisoners unless the NPA agreed to sign a permanent bilateral ceasefire. With mounting ‘encounters’ between the NPA and government troops, the NPA withdrew its unilateral ceasefire in February 2017, with the Philippine government following suit days after.

But by April, the peace negotiations were back on track, only to be well and truly shut down in late May by the Duterte administration just as the Marawi conflict was in its infancy. It would seem that the NPA’s revolutionary call to arms in response to Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao was the final nail in the coffin.

The NPA—or at least those within it that truly believe in the doctrinal application of a protracted people’s war—would almost certainly still envisage themselves as still being in stage one, that being the strategic defence. Their numerical disadvantage means that the NPA are still very much reliant on exploiting the rural terrain in which they operate, enabling them both freedom of movement and the application of guerrilla tactics with little impunity.

As such, it’s clear that the NPA has everything to gain and Duterte everything to lose. The NPA embraces the idea of a protracted conflict in order to achieve its strategic goals. Duterte, on the other hand, is politically constrained by the limits of his six-year tenure. Duterte will certainly have a busy five years ahead if he wishes to make the end the Philippines’ Maoist insurgency a hallmark of his administration.

But with Duterte putting his efforts across three very separate fronts—the war on drugs, Islamist insurgents in Mindanao, and the NPA’s revolutionary war—the odds are very much against him. Would some form of permanent bilateral ceasefire have been met if the Marawi conflict hadn’t manifested itself? Perhaps. But as with any rural-based insurgency, particularly those spread nationwide across a multitude of fronts, tactical miscalculations by individual NPA commanders and government forces will probably continue to derail any hopes of peace in the Philippines in the near future.

Patrick Dupont is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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