Duterte's final gambit to end insurgency: task force vs communists
MANILA, Philippines – As if the government shutting down the country’s largest media company wasn’t messy enough, its anti-insurgency task force jumped into the fray by turning it into an issue of communist propaganda.
When the government ordered ABS-CBN off the air on May 5, journalists and various groups immediately denounced it as an attack on press freedom. President Rodrigo Duterte had finally made good on his threat to block the network’s franchise renewal.
The following day, May 6, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr, chief of the military’s Southern Luzon Command (Solcom), posted on his and Solcom’s Facebook pages a defense of the government’s move against ABS-CBN.
“Stop harping on a non-issue unless you have been paid to do so,” the general said in the post addressed to Amnesty International Philippines head Butch Alano. Parlade blasted the watchdog for accusing the government of attacking press freedom.
“Yes to law and order! Otherwise you might just get the martial law that you deserve,” added Parlade, who is also a spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
On May 9, NTF-ELCAC posted on its Facebook page an erroneous defense of the ABS-CBN shutdown. It also posted a meme accusing Rappler CEO Maria Ressa of “spreading fake news” when she misspoke that ABS-CBN had 11 million employees. Ressa had by then already owned up and apologized for the mistake.
The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) shared NTF-ELCAC’s posts, and then took them down after journalists and netizens cried foul.
Why is the NTF-ELCAC, an anti-communist body, so involved with the ABS-CBN issue?
On May 10, PCOO Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, also a spokesperson for NTF-ELCAC, provided an answer. “We are fully cognizant about how the terrorist CPP-NPA-NDF [Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front] exploits the ABS-CBN closure and views it as an opportunity to sow chaos and division, through its broad alliances like Amnesty International that has meddled and weighed in with the narrative they force on us: suppression of press freedom,” Badoy said in a statement.
Parlade summed it up in a succeeding statement on May 12: “Reds free-ride on [the] ABS-CBN issue.”
What is NTF-ELCAC?
If Parlade and Badoy are seeing red in an issue that most people would not associate with the communist insurgency, such as press freedom and a TV network’s woes, it’s because they are part of a government body that’s meant to do just that.
President Duterte created NTF-ELCAC in December 2018 as his administration’s definitive vehicle that mobilizes the entire bureaucracy, its networks and resources to crush the 50-year-old communist rebellion – a campaign promise. His term ends in two years. (READ: The end of the affair? Duterte's romance with the Reds)
The Philippine president who's been most friendly to the communists is now hell-bent on dealing them the final blow through the following:
- unrelenting battelfield operations
- red-tagging of perceived and known communist supporters and sympathizers
- massive propaganda war
- legal offensives here and abroad
- localized peace talks
- development and livelihood projects
- money for rebel returnees
When he came to power in June 2016, Duterte welcomed the top leaders of the CPP to Malacañang – a first in recent history.
As proof of their good ties that go way back to when he was mayor of Davao, Duterte appointed leftist leaders to his Cabinet, freed political prisoners, and reopened the negotiating table between the government and the CPP's political wing, the NDF.
But by November 2017, the air was fraught with accusations of ceasefire violations on both sides. The government found the rebels’ demands too steep. An angry Duterte called off peace talks, and hostilities resumed.
The military estimates the NPA to have 3,400 armed regulars today, down from a peak of 25,000 in the late 1980s. (READ: The end of the affair? Duterte's romance with the Reds)
With NTF-ELCAC, the Duterte government is taking the fight against communist insurgents to villages and communities with more intensity than in previous administrations. The task force tracks down rebel presence and influence in all areas of society, and shapes public opinion against them.
This expanded battlefield is the so-called “white area,” where rebels supposedly derive resources and recruits from unarmed communities and legal organizations.
The task force covers “the socio-politico-economic dimension of the counterinsurgency campaign," AFP deputy chief of staff for Civil Military Operations, J7, Brigadier General Edgardo de Leon told Rappler. "It is not a purely military concern – to effectively address the insurgents’ exploitation of human dissatisfaction to instigate violent and radical change, rather than peaceful transformation."
Explained AFP chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr: “They are the ones integrating the ‘whole of nation’ approach [to counterinsurgency]. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) takes care of the armed group, New People’s Army. NTF-ELCAC integrates all efforts to eliminate all other strategies of the CPP-NDF to totally eliminate the armed conflict."
“Counterinsurgency is not only armed confrontation. NTF-ELCAC addresses those who help the communist armed group,” Santos added.
Who comprise NTF-ELCAC?
Placed under the Office of the President, NTF-ELCAC is chaired by Duterte himself, with National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr as vice chair. It includes Cabinet secretaries, the chiefs of the military and police, and a few other members.
Duterte’s Executive Order (EO) 70, signed on December 4, 2018, “institutionalizes the whole-of-nation approach” to battling the communist insurgency, and establishes NTF-ELCAC with the following members:
- Secretary, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)
- Secretary, Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Secretary, Department of National Defense (DND)
- Secretary, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)
- Secretary, Department of Budget and Management (DBM)
- Secretary, Department of Finance (DOF)
- Secretary, Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR)
- Secretary, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)
- Secretary, Department of Education (DepEd)
- Director General, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA)
- Director General, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA)
- Director General, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA)
- Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process
- Presidential Adviser on Indigenous Peoples’ Concerns
- Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)
- Chief, Philippine National Police (PNP)
- Chairperson, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP)
- Secretary, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO)
- Two representatives from the private sector
The Cabinet secretaries may designate an undersecretary or assistant secretary from their agency to represent them in the task force.
Also comprising the task force are:
- NCIP Chairman Allen Capuyan, NTF-ELCAC Executive Director
- PCOO Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson
- AFP Solcom chief Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr, NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson
Rappler asked Parlade and another official who the two private sector representatives to the task force are. They could not name them as of writing.
Arroyo’s military men
Esperon, Capuyan, and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año are all former Army officers who played key roles under the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who ran an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign.
Esperon was military operations chief when Arroyo ran for president in 2004. He served as AFP chief of staff and then peace adviser under her, whose term was marked by a spate of killings and disappearances of political activists.
Capuyan was operations chief of the military’s intelligence service (or Isafp) under Arroyo. He allegedly ran wiretapping operations on Arroyo’s political foes.
Capuyan and Esperon were tagged in the “Hello, Garci” scandal, in which Arroyo and then-elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano allegedly conspired to rig the 2004 national elections. Having served in Mindanao, Capuyan became one of the early supporters of Duterte within the military.
Año was with the Army’s Intelligence Security Group in April 2007, when activist Jonas Burgos was abducted in a mall in Quezon City allegedly by Army intelligence agents, and was never heard from again.
Touted “the Rebel Hunter,” Año’s intelligence coups led to the arrests of the rebels' top guns, including CPP chairman Benito Tiamzon in March 2014, during the administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. He also, on the other hand, plotted the arrest in 2014 of the rebels' nemesis, retired general Jovito Palparan.
Año became AFP chief of staff under Duterte, and he saw through the 5-month siege of Marawi City by the Maute terror group in 2017. Upon his retirement from the military, Año was appointed interior secretary.
It's no wonder then that the NTF-ELCAC program echoes the Arroyo-era Oplan Bantay Laya 1 and 2, which aimed to “neutralize the White Area command and communist movement personalities in sectoral organizations providing support to the…armed struggle.”
Local governments on the front lines
With EO 70, the government acknowledges that the communist rebellion, or any insurgency, is rooted in social ills like poverty and injustice. This is why it pulls nearly the entire Cabinet into NTF-ELCAC.
In terms of strategy, the task force brings the focus of counterinsurgency down to the ground, among individual guerrilla fronts scattered all over the country.
Duterte’s security officials said CPP leaders Joma Sison and Luis Jalandoni have lost touch with their fighters on the ground, so it’s better to deal directly with NPA guerrilla units – through local governments.
The DILG outlines 12 “lines of effort” in its implementing guidelines for NTF-ELCAC:
- Local Government Empowerment – Local governments must be able to “sustainably take the lead in peace-building efforts.”
- International Engagement – The government will counter the messaging of the CPP-NPA-NDF among foreign organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union.
- Legal Cooperation – The goal is to “equip units of the government…with effective and adequate legal skills and knowledge relevant to the communist-terrorist predicaments confronting the governments efforts” at peace.
- Strategic Communication – This is the government’s counter-propaganda against the CPP-NPA-NDF, led by the PCOO.
- Basic Services – The goal is to “provide responsive delivery of basic services” to make communities “conflict-resilient.”
- Livelihood and Poverty Alleviation – The TESDA steps in among “marginalized communities” to teach them a trade.
- Infrastructure and Resource Management – The DPWH and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will provide infrastructure and manage local resources “to contribute to the attainment of peace.”
- Peace, Law Enforcement, and Development Support – This is the military aspect of the task force, led by the DND.
- Situational Awareness and Knowledge Management – This means intelligence work on the CPP-NPA-NDF, led by the NICA.
- Localized Peace Engagement – or “localized peace talks” led by the DILG and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.
- E-CLIP and Amnesty Program – At the core of efforts to disarm the insurgents, the DND and DILG distribute cash and livelihood assistance to rebels who surrender to the government.
- Sectoral Unification, Capacity Building, Empowerment and Mobilization – Involving 11 government agencies, this basically means they will fulfill their mandates to achieve good governance, to cut the roots of rebellion.
Legal fronts and propaganda
The first 4 “lines of effort” – local government empowerment, international engagement, legal cooperation, strategic communication – all involve the white area.
An example of the lengths NTF-ELCAC was going to in order to cut the communist rebels’ alleged above-ground sources of support was its “Truth Caravan” to Europe in February 2019.
Parlade and a delegation from the PCOO went to Bosnia, Switzerland, and Belgium to urge the European Union and the Belgian government to cut funding for some 30 progressive groups whom they accused of being legal fronts for the CPP-NPA-NDF.
In the Philippines, security officials, including Año and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, pushed Congress to amend the Human Security Act to broaden the definition of “terrorism,” and to give state forces more leeway in surveilling, arresting, and detaining terror suspects.
The government considers the CPP-NPA-NDF a terrorist organization, and the amended law is designed to include them in its ambit.
Rights advocates denounced the updated measure, saying it effectively criminalizes dissent and opposition to the government.
With the broadened anti-terrorism law, progressive groups feared that, with a veneer of legality, they could be targeted by state forces who associate them with the communist insurgency.
The rights group Karapatan said 3,399 members of progressive groups have been arrested over allegedly trumped-up charges since the start of the Duterte administration in June 2016.
In 2019, with EO 70 already in effect and NTF-ELCAC on top of anti-communist operations, government forces began raiding offices of progressive groups with legitimate warrants from courts of law.
On October 31, joint police and military troops swooped down on offices of labor rights and activist groups in Bacolod City, and arrested 56 members accused of being members of the NPA.
A similar operation in Manila on the same day led to the arrest of 3 urban poor activists.
In both cases, operatives said they found firearms and explosives in the groups’ offices. They bore search warrants issued by the same Quezon City Regional Trial Court judge.
On November 4, 44 of those arrested in Bacolod City were formally charged with illegal possession of firearms, ammunition, and explosives.
Days later, in a briefing at the House of Representatives on November 7, the DND and the military accused the Gabriela Women’s Party, Oxfam Philippines, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and 15 other groups of being CPP-NPA-NDF front organizations.
Government's social media accounts have also been used to red-tag media companies and journalists.
Members of progressive groups condemned these and other forms of intimidation from state forces, calling them a “crackdown” and a violation of the constitutional freedoms of assembly and expression.
The DILG said this was nonsense: all the police and military’s actions were covered by court warrants.
Old guard arrests
Among the thousands of people arrested in recent years for alleged links to the NPA were two aging officers of the rebel army, “Ka Diego” and “Kumander Bilog.”
Jaime “Ka Diego” Padilla was seeking treatment for heart disease at the Cardinal Santos Medical Center in San Juan City when he was arrested on November 26, 2019.
Said to be in his 60s, Padilla is the spokesperson of the NPA’s Southern Tagalog Melito Glor Command. He was accused of murder and kidnapping.
Rodolfo Salas, or “Kumander Bilog,” was arrested on February 18, 2020 in Angeles City, Pampanga. He was concurrently chairman of the CPP and commander of the NPA at the height of its strength in the 1980s.
Salas was first jailed in 1987 and then released in 1992. Now 73, he reportedly surrendered peacefully when he was arrested again, this time for his alleged involvement in a mass grave in Leyte.
Arrests like these push the government’s narrative that the CPP-NPA-NDF has lost its fire and relevance, its old guard either in exile or behind bars.
A precursor: Task Force Balik-Loob
If the government uses force to intimidate members of progressive groups with supposed links to the NPA, it has quite a different strategy with actual NPA members out fighting in the jungles.
When military troops are not attacking NPA lairs, the government entices its guerrillas to defect by offering them cash and a promise of a peaceful return to civilian life.
“Balik-loob” means “return to the fold,” and this is the name of another task force Duterte created before NTF-ELCAC. This old rebel surrenderees program is a throwback to even the Cory Aquino years. Duterte simply added a twist to it.
Task Force Balik-Loob was established through Duterte’s Administrative Order (AO) 10 on April 3, 2018, to “centralize” government efforts to “reintegrate” former rebels into society.
It runs the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP), which offers guerrillas incentives in exchange for their surrender:
- P15,000 upon enrollment in the program
- P50,000 worth of livelihood assistance when their social reintegration process is completed
- Remuneration commensurate to the value of firearms they surrender
- Housing assistance or a housing unit from the government
- Security guarantee from the local government, PNP, and AFP for 3 years
- Health and medical assistance
- Legal assistance if necessary
- An option to enroll in the government's conditional cash transfer program
Meanwhile, a military or police unit receives P21,000 for each former rebel they take under their wing, “to defray their subsistence or meals cost while in custody, and other incidental costs incurred” such as in securing clearances and government documents for them.
This program is led by the DND and the military, with the help of local governments.
Weapon of choice
When NTF-ELCAC was created, Task Force Balik-Loob came under its purview. The E-CLIP and the 2011 socio-economic program Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (PAMANA) have become the government’s weapon to starve the NPA of fighters, even as military and police offensives continue.
Security officials and the military top brass have hailed these “localized peace talks” by NTF-ELCAC as a counterinsurgency success.
They believe in it so much that Esperon and Lorenzana openly disagreed with Duterte when he attempted to revive peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF in December 2019. The two former military generals said NTF-ELCAC was working just fine, and talking to Sison would be a waste of time.
With EO 70 in force, the AFP said the communist rebels lost 10,918 fighters in 2019. They were either killed in armed encounters, apprehended, or had surrendered to the government.
In his assumption speech in January 2020, AFP chief Santos said nearly 1,200 guerrillas surrendered in 2019 in Eastern Mindanao, where he was the military commander before becoming the AFP chief.
On April 24, Duterte revealed in a taped speech that he scrapped Sison’s last-ditch proposal for peace talks from December after the military rejected the rebel leader’s demands.
‘Law and order’
On several occasions, Santos said he is confident the military can stamp out the 5-decade-old insurgency by the end of the Duterte administration in June 2022.
This, because he believes NTF-ELCAC got the formula right – offer tired, battle-scarred, poor guerrillas a reset button, and weed out the organizations that inject new blood into the armed struggle.
Yet Duterte keeps brandishing the NPA as a threat nearly as ominous as the coronavirus pandemic, judging by the amount of time he spends talking about it during his televised addresses.
In a taped speech aired on Tuesday, May 12, Duterte offered a P2-million reward to anyone who would capture or kill “top NPA commanders.”
More than once, he threatened to declare martial law if the NPA’s “lawlessness” persists through the pandemic.
This is the same threat – martial law – that Parlade hurled at Amnesty International and anyone who would accuse the government of attacking press freedom by shutting down ABS-CBN.
The shutdown, in his view, was “law and order” at work, and anyone who disagrees just gives the communists fodder for their dwindling fire. – with a report from Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com