They were “insurrectos” during the late Spanish period, “insurgents” during formal US occupation, and “insurgents” still today.

Echoing the country’s former and current colonizers, the Philippine government calls what the guerillas of the New People’s Army (NPA) are waging an “insurgency.” But more accurately can it be described as a war–and a war that has been going on for over a century.

That war has been described as “the longest running” of its kind in Asia and quite probably in the entire world. Forty-five years have passed since the founding of the NPA in March 29, 1969, but as the successor of the forces of the failed Philippine Revolution of 1896, it can trace its provenance even farther, to the late 19th century. That makes the “insurgency” 118 years old, its parentage being the Katipunan.

No doubt the Philippine military will reject that idea. The official line is that it is the Armed Forces of the Philippines that’s the successor of the Katipunan, despite its origins as an anti-Katipunan force organized by the US colonizers to complete the conquest of these isles at the turn of the 20th century.

In search of markets for its products and coaling stations for its ships, from 1899 onwards US forces and their local henchmen smashed the armies of the First Asian Republic and decimated the rural population, transforming vast areas of the Philippine countryside into the “howling wilderness” US Army General Jacob Smith wanted Samar converted into in the aftermath of the Balangiga incident, which the US still describes today as a “massacre” perpetrated by “insurgents.” (It also refuses to return the Balangiga church bells, trophies of its first “bloody, blundering” war of conquest.)

The continuity is evident beyond the “insurgent” and “insurgency” label–or the Philippine military’s referring to Benito Tiamzon, alleged chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), as, a la Andres Bonifacio, the NPA “Supremo.”

The proffered means for achieving them have changed, but the demands for social justice, for authentic independence, equality, and progress resonate across the decades, whether articulated by Katipunero, peasant rebel, Huk–or NPA guerilla.

The Katipunan and the Republic were defeated at the turn of the century, but were soon replaced by other formations, the many uprisings and rebellions that persisted during the US occupation and after being their reincarnations and embodiment. Thus were the Huks defeated only temporarily in the 1950s, their NPA successors picking up where they had left off, and persisting to this day.

Indeed have the fortunes of the 118-year war waxed and waned, with its leaders arrested, exiled or killed, its fighters imprisoned, killed in battle, or ravaged by age and illness. In 1977 CPP founding chair Jose Ma. Sison and many others were arrested, while still others–among the best and brightest sons and daughters of the Filipino people–were killed, tortured, imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared by the dark forces of the Marcos regime. But the war has continued.

Like Sison’s arrest then, the arrest of Benito Tiamzon and his wife last week has been described by the Philippine government and military as a mortal blow against the “insurgency,” and has become one more occasion for the latter to re-issue its challenge for NPA guerillas and members of the CPP to “join the mainstream” and to fight for what they believe in in the legal sphere.

Like the claim that the AFP’s into protecting human rights, the latter’s a call few familiar with the extrajudicial killings of legal activists will take seriously. But even more challenging to credibility is the claim that the arrest of two people will put a halt to the war that through foreign conquests, invasion, two world wars, a declaration of martial law, two People Power uprisings and a succession of administrations since that of Marcos has persisted.

It persists for a reason. As basically rational beings, men and women do not risk life, if not fortune, lightly. For founding the Katipunan, Bonifacio’s reward was death, as was Rizal’s for his novels and other efforts to awaken his countrymen to the horrors of colonial rule–as was that of countless others who fought Spanish colonizer and American invader, and as was that of the poet, playwright and essayist Emmanuel Lacaba, killed extrajudicially (“salvaged”) in 1976 for joining the army of the poor.

The Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis said it best in The Last Temptation of Christ: the greatest temptation of all is to be and to live like others, the path to redemption or revolution being strewn with those perils the instinct for survival rejects. And yet, even in these isles of compromise and paths of least resistance, thousands of men and women have over the decades travelled the road usually not taken called resistance and revolution.

What has driven them is the poverty, the injustice, the miseries and the terrors that define the daily lives of millions, and it is what drives them still. If poverty is the worst form of violence, as Mahatma Gandhi once declared while fighting for the independence of India from the British, violence as a means of ending it, though denied its victims by those who use violence to perpetrate the violence of poverty, has a compelling legitimacy.

Bonifacio understood that against the violence of poverty only organized violence could free its victims, as did those who opposed the violence of martial law–and as those who, repeatedly told that they can contend in the legal arena, have seen those who did so murdered by the very same forces of deceit and greed that urged them to join the so-called legal mainstream. Inevitable that they should arrive at no other conclusion than to take up the gun towards dismantling the structures of power and privilege that make poverty the inevitable lot of millions.

It’s been said before, and even by those who say it without understanding, and it bears repeating: only by addressing the fundamental ills against which the 118-year war has been and is being waged can there be peace in these isles of violence. Peace can be achieved through a negotiated agreement between the State and its adversaries to democratize political power; dismantle a land tenancy system so archaic its continuing existence defies understanding; implement an authentic industrialization program; and release the country from its bondage to foreign overlordship, among others.

Otherwise the State can arrest hundreds, even thousands of Tiamzons, but as long as poverty, injustice, and mass misery define the lives of millions, the 118-year war will continue.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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