PROBABLY with the approach of the new year in mind, but certainly because of the occasion, President Benigno Aquino III announced during the 75th anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) a supposedly new counter-insurgency strategy meant, said AFP spokesmen, not only to defeat “the enemy,” but also to “win the peace.”
By “the enemy,” all Philippine governments since that of Ferdinand Marcos has meant the New People’s Army (NPA), the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) which commands it, and the alliance of various revolutionary groups known as the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) of which the CPP is a part.
Before Marcos “the enemy” was the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (People’s Liberation Army) or HMB, or, at least what remained of it after the capture of most of its leadership and that of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) in the 1950s. The HMB was formerly the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap–People’s Anti- Japanese Army), having been founded and mobilized in response to the Japanese invasion during World War II. More simply known as the Huks, it existed as an organized, centrally -directed group for less than 20 years.
The NPA was founded in 1969 by the CPP, which was itself reestablished in 1968 on the assumption that the PKP could no longer wage revolution. The NPA has been in existence for 41 years, and the CPP for 42. Depending upon who’s looking at it, it’s either proof that both are doing some things right and the Philippine government and military are doing a lot of things wrong, or both have managed to survive through the use of violence and subversion.
The use of “violence and subversion” is the Philippine government and military’s main explanation for the survival of “the insurgency”. But they say both also constitute its core. As the US government’s 2009 Counterinsurgency Guide defines it, “insurgency is the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify or challenge political control of a region.”
Which leads us to an interesting conclusion: the “new” Philippine strategy comes straight out of the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide, and that includes its free use of the very term “insurgency” as well as its key components, the only difference being its being labeled “Bayanihan”. (Since the turn of the century, the US has been using the term insurgency to describe any organized attempt to oppose it. The Philippine American War was an “insurgency,” for example; the documents of the Philippine Revolution US forces seized during that war they called “Insurgent Records”. )
Mr. Aquino and his generals have in effect declared that the “Bayanihan” strategy is basically about making government work, so as to mitigate the discontent, outrage and despair among the most impoverished and marginalized sectors of the population from which the “insurgency” draws its recruits.
The strategy (officially the Internal Peace and Security Plan) has four elements: governance, delivery of basic services, economic reconstruction and sustainable development, and security sector reform. Not coincidentally does the US Guide contain essentially the same elements, or “functions”: political, economic, security, and information, which are intended to convince a skeptical population of the sincerity and legitimacy of an existing, US-supported government.
However, regardless of its provenance—and no one would argue with the need to observe human rights and international humanitarian law which the government says it intends to do– the “new” strategy has been tried before, in various ways and under different names.
Providing social services and undertaking economic reconstruction went by the name civic action in the US strategy to win the war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (It lost, anyway.) It went by the same name during the martial law period in the Philippines, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) supposedly engaged in improving communities as part of its anti-communist campaigns.
It may even be argued that the “social justice” program of the Commonwealth era, under the auspices of which landless peasants were resettled in Mindanao and low-cost housing provided in the “projects” in the suburbs of Manila–was in response to the founding of the PKP in 1930.
The new strategy isn’t as new as it’s being made to appear, and is at least as old as the Vietnam War, during which the US finally learned that military action alone would not win it and its then client government the hearts and minds of the population.
“Winning hearts and minds” was in fact the other name for civic action—in which troops brought medical care to impoverished communities, helped dig irrigation canals, built bridges, etc.—meant to convey the message that the inequities of the political, economic and social systems which drove people into taking up arms were more imagined than real.
If it has been tried before, the key question is why the “insurgency,” or more appropriately, the armed social movement committed to social revolution, has persisted. The easy answer is that its roots—the poverty and the injustice of Philippine society—have not been addressed. Will the “new” strategy address those roots through the four elements it identifies as crucial to “winning the peace”?
The answer lies in the willingness, determination and capacity of the Philippine government, most especially its armed forces, to do exactly what it says it intends to. No sane person is for war if the reasons for it no longer exist. The strategy would make sense —if it removes the reasons for war, provides social services, reconstructs the rural economy, and puts in place the reforms that the inequities of Philippine society have been demanding for well over a century.
The capability to do so, however, is premised on an authentic and sustainable reform program , the key word being “sustainable.” Unless authentic reforms, and not just palliatives meant only to defeat “the enemy ”are implemented, no counterinsurgency strategy will succeed—in this or any other country in which poverty, injustice, and mass misery are the daily burdens of the human condition.