Aiming high

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It’s natural, and even expected, that people new in their jobs should aim high. Perhaps it’s to impress their superiors–or because, precisely because they’re new, they don’t have experience enough to appreciate the magnitude of their promises.

Even then, however, the new Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen. Efren Abu, was aiming for the stratosphere when he vowed to “finish off” the New People’s Army by June 2005, when his seven-month term expires.

The NPA has been around since 1969. Theoretically, however, every insurgency, rebellion, or armed revolutionary movement can be defeated. I am sure that there are a number of examples from military lore that can show that it’s been done in practice. In our time, however, only a combination of methods and approaches, rather than the purely military approach, can defeat them.

The reason lies not only in the core method, guerilla war, such armed movements favor to seize political power. Guerilla war does give initially small, poorly-trained and poorly-armed groups an advantage in the battlefield. Guerillas do not engage in positional warfare, in which their better- armed and better–trained opponents would naturally excel. Neither do they regard control over territory as critical.

Instead they favor ambuscades and raids in which victory is certain, and place mobility and preserving their capacity to fight over holding camps or bases. Over time, the accumulation of small victories can lead to a strategic advantage in terms of the decimation of state forces, leading to the final push for the seizure of power.

The two greatest theoreticians of guerilla war are China’s Mao Zedong and Vietnam’s Vo Nguyen Giap. Both proved that a guerilla army, while weak in relation to highly organized state forces supported and equipped by foreign powers, can eventually prevail.

In China, the People’s Liberation Army fought an extremely complex and fluid protracted war for 21 years, but eventually gained control of the entire mainland. In Vietnam, Vietnamese guerillas–the Viet Minh, and later, the Viet Cong–fought the French, and then the Americans and the US client government of South Vietnam for almost the same length of time. In 1975, however, they had won enough tactical victories to finally overthrow the South Vietnamese government and expel US occupation troops.

By itself, however, the use of guerilla warfare to win political power is not enough. Guerilla forces cannot survive without the support of the population–support that can range from providing guerillas safe haven to providing them intelligence on troop movements. The population is at the same time the inexhaustible supply of guerilla recruits–a fact indivisible from the population’s perception that the guerillas are fighting in their behalf.

No guerilla army can survive without its cause’s being perceived as just. The existence of a guerilla army is first and last premised on the existence of legitimate grievances that can no longer be redressed through legal, institutional means, for the resolution of which the guerillas are perceived to be fighting. Without that premise, no guerilla army can even be imagined.

Thus has it been said again and again: the key to defeating armed movements is to address the economic and social grievances that fuel them. Of grievances, there is enough in the Philippines for rebellion to have persisted for 300 years. The Armed Forces could do worse than to brush up on Philippine history. Perhaps it would realize then that the 300 rebellions the Spaniards had to deal with, and those the Americans had to suppress, among them the Huk rebellion of the 1950s, are still with us. Although they have assumed new forms since, they are nevertheless still driven by the same demands for social and plain justice as well as better and more meaningful lives.

But “finish off the NPA” was the exact phrase the new AFP spokesman, Lt. Col. Buenaventura Pascual, used last Saturday before media to describe General Abu’s plans. It’s a phrase that can only be interpreted to mean defeating it decisively in the battlefield by June.

In addition to the skepticism and even derision such deadlines invite, the destruction of the NPA by that time is a possibility that’s more than unlikely, unless the NPA commits a major strategic blunder between now and then, such as massing all its forces in a final confrontation with the AFP in the Central Luzon plains. That would be a blunder so monumental it’s about as distant from reality as the distance from planet Earth to Andromeda.

No, the military solution the AFP has persisted in pursuing for the last 35 years won’t do. But what can help it is if it were part of a larger galaxy of solutions, including, but not limited to, an authentic land reform program that would address the peasant demand for land, and redress its many grievances against the unjust social order land tenancy has kept in place for centuries. It is the poorest of tenant farmers who, in the first place, provide the NPA its recruits. And it is from them it draws support in the Philippine countryside.

In addition, a necessary component of any program to address the root causes of insurgency and rebellion would be the democratization of political power, through, for example, the involvement of the marginalized, the poor and the powerless in decision-making.

The monopoly over political power by a handful of families is a major grievance among poor and marginalized sectors. The view that reform cannot be undertaken through legal means–and that the historic grievances of the peasantry, workers, various ethnic and minority groups, and of the intelligentsia, cannot be addressed by any Philippine government–is premised on precisely the perception that these sectors have little or no say in decision-making.

The very political system itself acknowledged the lack of representation of these sectors when Party-list representation was included in the Philippine Constitution as a means of correcting the over-representation of business and landed interests in Congress.

The Party-list system is intended to, among other aims, democratize representation in Congress, and, in the long-term, develop among the disaffected the hope that they can participate meaningfully in the political system. In last May’s elections, however, the AFP and other government institutions demonstrated their lack of appreciation of the role that the system could play in addressing the grievances that fuel rebellion and insurgency.

Instead of protecting the integrity of the Party-list system, which in the long-term would have undermined the armed Left’s thesis that the political system will never allow progressives to participate in decision- making, these institutions harassed groups it considered radical–even provoking, if not carrying out, the murder of the leaders and activists of such groups as Bayan Muna, Anak Pawis, and Gabriela. In doing so, the government validated the armed Left’s thesis that there is no hope for the poor except to take up the gun–and undermined its (the government’s) own calls for armed groups to lay down their arms and to fight for their programs in the legal sphere.

If General Abu sincerely hopes to end the NPA’s protracted war, or to least contribute to that goal by the time his term ends, he could thus do worse than to evaluate not only the AFP’s strategy in achieving that aim, but also its own capacity to wage war and win battles.

He may yet discover that a demoralized soldiery whose officers steal its uniforms, boots and food allowances–and whose generals grow fat on lechon while they survive on instant noodles and sardines–do not make for good fighters.

A starved soldiery ignorant of what it is fighting for is also driven to commit the very abuses against the civilian population–brutalizing suspected NPA sympathizers, shooting at everything that moves, stealing chickens and whatever else they can lay their hands on–that everyday drive the sons and daughters of the peasantry into the arms of the NPA. What the Philippine soldiery has become undermines that other battle, the one for hearts and minds, that a guerilla war is all about.

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The sentence “Eight out of ten Philippine households are hungry, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology survey found last August” in last Saturday’s column should have read, “Eight out of ten Philippine households have experienced hunger, a Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology survey found last year.” My apologies.

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