Philippine military chief: Communist guerrillas down to 24 fronts nationwide

Jojo Riñoza and Richel V. Umel
2022.11.03
Manila
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Philippine military chief: Communist guerrillas down to 24 fronts nationwide Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro speaks as he takes over as the Philippine military chief during a change of command ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Aug. 8, 2022.
Ezra Acayan/pool/AFP

Battlefield victories in a counter-insurgency campaign have slashed the strength of communist rebels in the Philippines by nearly 75 percent to two dozen “guerrilla fronts,” the country’s military chief said Thursday. 

The number of guerrillas in the communist New People’s Army (NPA) has also fallen since the campaign began in 2018, said Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro, the armed forces’ chief of staff.

“We are happy to report that right now, out of the 89, we’re confronting just 24 guerrilla fronts,” Bacarro told reporters in an online news conference after a high-level meeting of the national anti-communist task force (NTF-ELCAC).

“In terms of their manpower, we have reduced them to 2,112 [fighters].”

Established under then-President Rodrigo Duterte, the task force is responsible for executing the government’s strategy to end the communist insurgency that began in 1969, and is the longest-running one in Asia. The NPA is the military wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines. 

The strategy has focused on sustained military operations against guerrilla units coupled with local government programs to entice rebels to defect, including amnesty and economic aid packages.

Duterte created the task force shortly after he terminated peace talks with the communists in 2017, when he accused them of treachery by carrying out attacks while they engaged Manila in peace negotiations.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, have warned against the task force’s overarching powers, including its propensity to accuse political opponents of being communists or communist supporters despite a lack of evidence. They accused Duterte of using the task force to silence critics

‘The challenge we have right now’

Bacarro said 19 of the 24 “guerrilla fronts” had been significantly weakened and would be declared dismantled soon.

The military has been going after five active guerrilla fronts in the central province of Samar and in South Cotabato, a province in the main southern island of Mindanao. These rebel units’ operations encompass more than 150 villages.

“We are focusing on those active guerilla fronts. That is the challenge that we have right now,” Bacarro said. 

The NPA’s overall armory is down to an estimated 1,800 firearms, according to Bacarro who did not say how authorities got this information.

Previously, military leaders estimated the NPA had about 5,000 fighters nationwide scattered across remote areas, down from at least 20,000 at its peak in the 1980s.

The military recently declared Duterte’s southern home town, Davao city, as free of communist insurgency. It is the third area after Ilocos and Zamboanga to receive such a declaration.

Bacarro admitted that the military failed to crush the NPA forces by the time Duterte ended his six-year term on June 30.

“The conditions then were not favorable, we had COVID-19. So that is our priority now,” he said of efforts to dismantle all the NPA guerrilla fronts.

National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos, the task force vice chairman, convened a top-level meeting on Thursday to review the government’s anti-insurgency goals.

“What we have done in this four-hour long meeting of the NTF-ELCAC would really be to reiterate the philosophical and operational basis of the NTF-ELCAC which is the whole of nation and a whole of government work,” Carlos said.

“Which means everybody has to row together in the same direction to obliterate all the obstacles to our national development. This would be in the case of the enemies of the state to make sure that all our 42,000 barangays would really have a chance to be part of our economic growth,” he said.

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