'Communist army irrelevant in 5 years'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), marks its 45th anniversary on Saturday, March 29, in the wake of the arrest of its chairman Benito Tiamzon and wife Wilma Austria.

In spite of the setback, the NPA commands nationwide are scheduled to fall in formation and parade the flags of the CPP, NPA, and its political wing, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). They will give a 21-gun salute to honor fallen comrades. 

"Let us make use of the upcoming 45th anniversary of the NPA’s establishment to celebrate the people’s victories in waging revolutionary armed struggle," the CPP said in a statment posted on its website on the eve of its anniversary.

The military, however, predicts that the arrest of the Tiamzons will signal that Asia’s longest communist insurgency is about to end.

“After 5 years, they will be irrelevant. Hindi aabutin ng 5 years. (They won’t last another 5 years),” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Emmanuel Bautista told reporters on Friday.

The CPP seeks to overthrow the government to establish a people's democratic state to that will work to institute land reform, industrialize the country, develop socialist industry, and agricultural cooperation. 

But Bautista dismissed the NPA, its armed wing, as a “bandit group without any ideological mooring.” He said they are focused on extortion activities, referring to the revolutionary tax that it is collecting in areas it control.

Vacuum of leadership?

The communist party, supported by various militant organizations, have slammed the arrest of the Tiamzon couple as a sign of the government abandoning the peace process. The party leaders are supposed to be immune from arrest as NDFP consultants under the Joint Agreement for Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG).

The government of President Benigno Aquino III is not budging, however. It maintains that the couple is not covered by immunities because the verification process failed in July 2012. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has approved the indictment of the Tiamzons for illegal possesion of explosives.

Rey Casambre of the Philippine Peace Center said it is "more evident from government actions that it has no interest in resuming genuine peace talks with the NDFP."

Tiamzon, who the military says e-mails his orders to the different NPA commands nationwide, is supposed to be responsible for the "landmining, the killings, and the violence of the NPA."

Rights group Karapatan slammed the military rhetoric against the NPA and the Tiamzons. "Demonification is the approach of the government. Kung walang kuwenta ang kakausapin bakit kailangan pang kausapin?," said Karapatan secretary-general Marie Hilao Enriquez. (If the other party is not sincere, why even talk to them?)

The military believes the arrest of the Tiamzon couple will result in a "vacuum of leadership." The CPP taunts this statement as "hallucination" – the party has a "deep bench" of leaders, it says.

SURRENDER: Jong Manlantagan, 17, receives from AFP Chief General Emmanuel Bautista compensation for the firearm he surrendered to the Philippine Army.

Photo by Bobby Lagsa

The AFP considers the NPA the biggest threat to internal security and aims to make it irrelevant by 2016, the end of President Aquino's term. As territorial disputes escalate in Southeast Asia, the AFP highlights the need to focus on external defense. (READ: Finish insurgency, AFP chief tells commanders)

The AFP also hopes that the signing of the peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will signal the end of the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao.

The communist underground reached its peak under the regime of President Corazon Aquino, with close to 25,000 armed regulars, according to the military. But the fall of communism, factionalism, as well as strategic and battlefield blunders have reduced communist strength and influenced over the years. Government estimates put the NPA down to about 4,000 armed regulars.

The Tiamzon couple's arrest on March 22 was followed by the arrest on March 27 of another alleged NPA ranking leader Andrea Rosal, the pregnant daughter of the late NPA spokesperson "Ka Roger" Rosal.

On Friday, the military also announced the supposed surrender of 72 former NPA rebels based in Bukidnon in Northern Mindanao, one of the remaining strongholds of the NPA.

Collapse of the peace talks

The administration of Benigno Aquino III revived the peace talks in 2010. There was a high moment when the government claimed CPP founding chairman Jose Maria Sison agreed to a "special track" that would have sped up the process. A ceasefire would be immediately in place and the panels would discuss the reforms that CPP wanted.

The talks collapsed, however, when Sison reneged on his commitment and brought back the "regular track," former government chief negotiator Alex Padilla said. Sison wanted the government to first put in place the necessary reforms and then the NPA would lay down their arms. The government declared this is unrealistic.

In February 2013, talks hit an impasse and the word war began. Government representatives declared they had lost interest in the peace talks unless the CPP agreed to a new framework.

The NDFP denied the government narration. It said the "special track" and the "regular track" are complementary. NDFP spokesperson Fidel Agcaoili said it was the government that abandoned the peace talks when it walked out of the talks in February 2013. (READ: Joma wants peace, the 'ground' doesn't — Padilla and NDF exec in PH to get Aquino's 'real sentiments' on peace talks)

In December 2013, the CPP also announced it was abandoning the peace talks under the Aquino administration. These statements by the government and the CPP were never formalized, however. 

Malacañang stressed that the continuation of peace talks will depend on CPP's intentions.

"On the side of government, we have always expressed willingness to sit down and to talk. In the words of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Teresita Deles, we have always asked the CPP-NPA-NDF to come up with a clear-cut agenda for the talks," deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said over state-run radio dzRB on Saturday.

"This is a formula that has worked for us in several other negotiating tables and I think we've proven that the government can be trusted when it comes to negotiations," Valte added.

In February 2014, Norway sought to intervene to resume the talks, but to no avail. And then the Tiamzon couple was arrested.

Carol Araullo of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) slammed the government's "unilateral" move to remove their immunities as a sign they are insincere in pursuing peace negotiations. "They think they can impose all sorts of unilateral preconditions on the NDFP, including literally revising bilaterally agreed upon agreements like the JASIG, the Hague Joint Declaration, and other agreements," she said.

Debate on JASIG

Both camps have accused each other of insincerity. The government scored the continuing violence perpetrated by the NPA. The CPP scored the government's continued refusal, even before the arrest of the Tiamzon couple, to release arrested leaders that they say are covered by the JASIG.

The JASIG is an issue that continues to hamper the peace talks. It was put in place to protect the "underground" members who are tasked to cascade the negotiations down to its members on the ground. 

The Tiamzon couple, being the top leaders of the party, have the power to sway its members to either support or oppose the talks.

Padilla said the government would have given the Tiamzon couple protection under the JASIG when the talks were ongoing. But he blames the NDFP for failing to open the file that would have listed the aliases and attached the photos of underground members that needed protection under the JASIG.

But Casambre said there are other ways to verify people who should be covered by the JASIG.

"It may be true that the verification has temporarily failed those with aliases but, certainly, those who are publicly known to be involved in the peace process [should be covered]. There may be other ways of verification," Casambre said. 

Ed Olalia, counsel for the Tiamzon couple, claimed that the government deliberately filed false charges against them to "undermine and remove them from the protection of the JASIG." He said the firearms and explosive confiscated inside the vehicle of the Tiamzons were planted.

The government doesn't think the Tiamzon couple is helping the peace talks, however. On the contrary, it believes they are the ones who supposedly prevailed on Sison to renege on the special track. It's a claim that Sison has dismissed as an "intrigue."

Casambre is calling on the government to respect the JASIG, release the Tiamzon couple, and go back to the negotiating table. He said their release is not a precondition to the peace talks but a mere implementation of existing agreements. 

Padilla doesn't think so. "Even if peace talks resume, the release of [Benito] Tiamzon and Wilma is completely separate. Only upon the conclusion of a final peace agreement would, possibly, personalities of this stature be released," he said– Rappler.com