Special to the RW
WITH THE NEW PEOPLE'S ARMY IN THE PHILIPPINES:REPORT FROM A GUERRILLA FRONT
PART I: THE NPA UP-CLOSE
Revolutionary Worker #951, April 5, 1998
Our van had been climbing a coastal road. Now it came to a sudden stop. My companion and I got out. It was a beautiful night. The sky was clear, the moon and stars were shining. Below me, not far off, I heard the sea washing up against the shoreline. But before I could take in more of the scene, someone nudged me: "Quick, up the hill." We darted off the road onto a path and began heading inland and upland. My heart was pounding with anticipation. Our journey into the guerrilla front was beginning.
The path led to a supporter's house. Inside, my guide Camilo and local contacts made an evaluation of the security situation. After a few minutes we left and started walking again. A little past midnight we arrived at a peasant's hut. I was taken around back. From out of the darkness a voice lifted: "Comrade, welcome, we've been waiting a few days for you." I looked more closely. Two people were squatting and talking in hushed tones--one was lying in a hammock, another was standing, rifle in hand. The moment I had been waiting for: I was finally meeting up with the New People's Army, the NPA. For 10 days, I would be in the company of this unit.
The enemy kept watch on this area, so we had to be careful about our movements. We got a little rest and set off while it was still dark. On the trails, I was only allowed to use my flashlight for quick bursts of assistance. Three hours later we reached another peasant's hut where we would camp for two days.
A Visit to a Peasant Supporter,
Getting to Know the Red Fighters
We were staying at the household of Cesar. Cesar allows the NPA unit to use his hut when it passes through the area. He and his wife went about their daily activities, while the NPA fighters went about theirs: washing clothes, doing maintenance on their weapons, cooking (the squad prepared meals both for itself and for the family), and going off on patrols. I wondered what led this peasant to welcome the "red fighters" into his hut. An interview was arranged, with Camilo translating.
Cesar is a middle peasant. He lives a hard life but his conditions are nowhere near as severe as those of the landless poor peasants and agricultural laborers in the region. Cesar told me that he grows coconuts, bananas, and some vegetables on several hectares (a hectare is about 2.5 acres) of land.
"So when did you come in contact with the NPA?" I asked Cesar. "I first met the NPA," he told me, "in 1985. I have many relatives in the mass organizations." What, I asked, impresses you about the NPA? He replied without hesitation: "The NPA is good. They drive out the robbers and help the peasants with production. They help the poor." I asked him if he thought the NPA's vision of putting power in the hands of the oppressed and exploited was realistic. "Yes, the poor can run society." Do the government forces harass you? "They have come here several times and questioned me--I tell them nothing."
I wondered whether the party's political campaigns had filtered down to this level of the grass roots. Cesar explained, "I know about rectification, people have explained to me the defeats and errors of the past." As our conversation went on, Cesar told me that he had heard of Mao Tsetung and the Chinese revolution.
Time was limited, and Cesar had things to do. As Cesar went off to the fields, Camilo, in his humorous, down-to-earth way, quipped, "Cesar is what you might call a `latter-day saint'...he got involved in the struggle late in life."
I passed the afternoon talking with some members of the unit about their family backgrounds and political history.
Emilia, who is in her early 20's, is from a peasant family in the region. She kept account of the unit's supplies and expenses. Carlo and Lino were two of the unit's newer recruits. They were from the cities. Both had been involved in underground trade union activity, organizing transport workers. Tess is 20. She also came out of the urban movement. Her father, a union leader in Manila, had been murdered by paramilitary thugs in the late 1980s. Tess has done courier work and organized peasant youth. Jose, still in his teens, is the youngest member of the unit. He comes from one of the indigenous peoples of this region.
Then there was Isabel. Isabel is in her early 40's and has spent most of her adult life underground, working mainly in the countryside. Her children have been raised and cared for by relatives living in a town--although, occasionally, secret family visits are arranged. Isabel is a party leader in this region and has held various positions in the political and military commands of this guerrilla front. Isabel had wide knowledge of the situation "on the ground" and radiated enormous energy and optimism. I would have many in-depth discussions with Isabel and learn much from her revolutionary experiences and insights.
Two things already struck me about the people I was getting to know: their dedication to the revolution and the great camaraderie among them. We addressed one another as "ka," short for kasama, the Tagalog word for "comrade" (Tagalog is the most widely spoken language in the Philippines). Even Doy, the dog that went everywhere with the unit, was "ka Doy!"
Camilo announced dinner plans to me: "Cesar enjoyed talking with you and has donated a few chickens for dinner." It was a good meal, and good to have...because a difficult hike lay ahead of us the next morning.
Where were we headed? Isabel smiled, "We're going to where even the carabao won't go" (the carabao is the Filipino farmer's trusty water buffalo--cumbersome but versatile). Actually, we were making our way to a remote mountain campsite that was being readied for a month-long study retreat for the NPA fighters.
We hiked through dense thicket. Vast, spreading foliage provided a natural canopy. The air was steamy, the paths were muddy, and the climbs could get quite steep. The squad members, rifles strapped to their backs, moved quietly and steadily in single file. I concentrated on my footing but still had plenty of slips. I laughed to myself. Luis, the squad leader, had told me that NPA fighters are trained to maneuver in jungle and mountains at night...and now I noticed that Tess was wearing sandals.
The landscape changed. We entered woodland. Hollowed deep into the slopes were trails down which carabao hauled timber and up which they hauled supplies. We crossed several streams. And as the last shafts of sunlight broke through the green forest cover, we reached the campsite.
The camp had two lean-to-like shelters. Bamboo was the basic building material for the roofs, walls, and tables. The larger shelter had a hearth where meals were cooked. During my stay, the camp was busy with activity, even in the most torrential rains. Some fighters had construction tasks; others gathered wood and vegetables and fruit; some left on assignments. Weapons were always carried, or kept in close reach. As night fell, the fighters would string their hammocks to the supports of the shelters.
Plain living and self-reliance have long been hallmarks of the NPA. But life here, and I spent more than a week in the camp, was anything but grim. I am not just talking about the sense of purpose and commitment that was so palpable. It was also the atmosphere--the lively political discussion, the lighthearted joking, the revolutionary songs. I remember one night someone sang a beautiful ballad about two comrades in love but unable to be with each other because of their political assignments. The song told of longing but also of a deeper closeness that came from the awareness of what their lives are dedicated to.
Getting Some Perspective
on the Armed Struggle
The NPA is overwhelmingly a peasant army. But the NPA is led by a vanguard party of the proletariat--the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The CPP is leading the Filipino masses to wage a new-democratic revolution. This revolution confronts the "three mountains" that weigh on the people: imperialism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and semifeudal landlordism. The heart of the new-democratic struggle is the armed agrarian revolution in the countryside.
By waging protracted people's war in the rural areas, the revolutionary forces can eventually surround the cities, win nationwide victory, and completely overthrow the semicolonial and semifeudal system. The new-democratic revolution is the direct prelude to the socialist revolution.
The part of the Philippines we were in--this was southern Luzon--is quite poor. It is overwhelmingly agricultural. There is little industry to speak of besides some small processing plants. It is a region where landownership is highly concentrated; where tuberculosis, malaria, and gastrointestinal diseases remain significant health problems; where illiteracy is still widespread. For the same kinds of reasons, this is also a region where the armed struggle has been going on almost continuously since the first organizers arrived in 1971.
For over 25 years, the revolutionary forces in the Philippines have carried out agrarian revolution. Where the armed struggle has been strong, new organs of people's democratic power have been established. By the mid-1980s, the armed struggle in many parts of the Philippine countryside, including the region I was in, reached a fairly high level. But for several years now, the fighting has been at a fairly low level. Why?
Beginning in 1992, the revolutionary forces initiated what is called "recovery work." They were "recovering" from difficulties and setbacks suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What kinds of difficulties? The government unleashed campaigns of "total war" to wipe out the revolutionary forces and to terrorize the peasants (and many peasants were forced to flee their villages). And at the same time, a wrong political line, a revisionist line, had emerged in the CPP, and it led to serious losses.
In response to this situation, the NPA has worked to regain strength and influence in areas they had to abandon when the government unleashed its "total war" tactics. And the NPA has worked to regain the support and trust of the peasants in those areas where the wrong line had sown confusion in the peasants' minds. These circumstances greatly affected the course and level of the armed struggle.
A leading comrade who was staying in our camp for a few days made a presentation to me. He explained that "armed struggle is the principal form of struggle" in the Philippines and that the people's war has "three indispensable components--land reform, base-building, and armed struggle. Armed struggle is principal, but [for the last few years] we have been paying attention to strengthening our mass base--developing vigorous mass movements and mass organization, addressing the problems of the people, and doing political education among the peasants....We are strengthening the rear for guerrilla struggle."
But there can be no mass work without the NPA. Isabel was emphatic: "If there is no NPA there is no revolution. The masses will be terrorized if there is no NPA, and the NPA protects the masses." The NPA also engages in what are called "tactical offensives"--ambushes, raids, sniping operations, actions against thugs and agents, etc. When I was in Manila I could pick up a daily newspaper and occasionally read of a daring NPA assault on a police station in a small town. In the region I was visiting, a military patrol had recently been ambushed by the NPA guerrillas. The comrade I was talking with explained that the scale of tactical offensives would increase in the near future.
So for several years, the NPA has stressed educational work and grass-roots organizing in the countryside. This was how the revolution's leadership saw the needs of the situation. More recently, the revolution has set out, in the words of a March 1997 message to the NPA from the CPP, to "intensify guerrilla warfare on a wide scale, on the basis of an ever expanding and deepening mass base."
A statement issued in December 1997 (this was after I had returned from the Philippines) by Armando Liwanag, Chairman of the Central Committee of the CPP, puts what I am describing this way:
"The need for a new-democratic revolution through a protracted people's war is more than ever clear and urgent.... The mass base is most important for sustaining tactical offensives and frustrating enemy retaliation. It arises from painstaking mass work, arousing, organizing and mobilizing the masses according to their basic demands in the new-democratic revolution....
[A]ttention is paid to the correct balance between mass work and tactical offensives. Putting revolutionary politics in command, Party cadres and members and the Red commanders and fighters need to undertake study and train in guerrilla warfare. Tactical offensives must be launched according to capability."
Every revolution must learn from setbacks and mistakes. Every revolution must wage struggle against incorrect lines and approaches to the tasks and challenges before it. Maoists understand that these struggles temper and educate both the revolutionaries and the masses--the more so as the political and ideological issues are dug into and clarified. The Philippine revolution is no exception.
At this point it might be helpful to discuss the rectification campaign launched by the CPP in 1992. This way the reader can get a better handle on the twists and turns of the Philippine revolution in recent years.
I mentioned that an incorrect line had arisen in the CPP. The people promoting this line argued that the nature of Philippine society had changed, that capitalist development was eliminating semifeudal (landlord-peasant) exploitation in the countryside. They said that the Philippines was becoming a more and more urbanized-industrial society. In their eyes, Maoist protracted people's war, and the doctrine of surrounding the cities from the countryside, was no longer appropriate to Philippine conditions.
They advocated shifting the focus of the revolutionary struggle to the urban areas. They set out to create larger and more regular military formations in the countryside, the idea being to launch big offensives against government forces in order to help stimulate and support uprisings in the cities.
This wrong line sounded very revolutionary. It claimed that victory could be achieved quickly and that the decisive battles would be fought soon. But it was not a line that could lead to revolution. The people championing it were in fact looking for a short-cut to revolution. They put weapons above politics. Isabel explained: "Political and ideological work among the cadre, in the NPA, and among the masses was sacrificed." They increasingly cut themselves off from the lives and struggles of the peasants. And over time they began to doubt the ability of the peasant masses to make revolution.
In studying some of the writings of these forces, I could also see how they blurred the distinction between socialism and revisionism. They looked at the social-imperialist Soviet Union as a socialist country. Some of them wanted to drop Mao Tsetung Thought.
But during this period, the CPP as a whole had some ideological shortcomings. It had failed to take a stand against the revisionism of Deng Xiaoping. Its understanding of Soviet social-imperialism had weakened; and it saw the Soviet Union as a potential source of support and aid.
As I mentioned, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government military forces struck hard and viciously at the NPA and its peasant base. This was a brutal onslaught. In areas where political work among the peasants had slackened, the NPA sometimes found itself facing the enemy alone. When the situation in the cities failed to develop as the advocates of this wrong line had hoped, some of them did a flip-flop. They began to see the imperialists and reactionaries as all-powerful and lost faith in the armed struggle.
The proponents of this line were defeated in inner-party struggle. They are no longer in the CPP. Many of them have since gone over to open reformism, and some have even collaborated with the government. But their line caused serious damage--political, organizational, and military.
The leadership of the CPP summed up the experience of this period. It also made self-criticism for having strayed from the Maoist path. In 1992, the party launched a major "rectification campaign."
Rectifying the situation has required the NPA to recover, consolidate, and expand strength and influence among the peasant masses. The CPP decided this should mean a period of "prolonged mass work."
Rectification has also required party and NPA members to raise their ideological and political understanding. The NPA fighters I was with study materials dealing with the issues of this struggle. An important party document calls for "reaffirmation." Isabel explained: "We are reaffirming basic principles--the analysis that we are a semicolonial and semifeudal country, and that we must wage protracted people's war." During my stay with the guerrilla front, several veteran fighters told me that Mao's teachings had not been as diligently studied in the 1980s as had been the case in the early 1970s. Isabel said, "We are also going back to Mao's materials, back to basic principles of Mao Tsetung."
The fighters I spoke with were enthusiastic about rectification and recovery. They had stories to tell about the revolution sinking deeper roots among the peasant masses.
As mentioned earlier, the leadership is calling for intensified armed struggle. According to the December 1997 statement by Armando Liwanag, "the party leading organs are shaking off the inertia of conservatism induced by prolonged mass work without tactical offensives....We must combat `Left' and Right opportunist errors. We must intensify the armed struggle as the main form of struggle and coordinate revolutionary struggles in both urban and rural areas....There is no way out of the oppression and exploitation by the imperialists and the local exploiting classes but the new democratic revolution through protracted people's war."
The situation is complex and full of challenges. But this much can be said. The Philippine revolution has struck real blows against imperialism. How the armed struggle for nationwide power in the Philippines further develops and advances, and how the revolution further strengthens itself politically and ideologically, building on its Maoist roots--all this is tremendously important to the people of the world.
A Revolutionary Army Is
a People's Army
Through my many discussions, and seeing the NPA up close, I gained a much more living sense of how radically different a revolutionary army is from a bourgeois army. The experience and example of the NPA, like that of the Maoist fighting forces in Peru and Nepal, contains lessons for the oppressed and exploited in the U.S. I say this even though our road to power, and the armed struggle that must eventually be launched, has different features.
The NPA fights the enemy and serves the people. It is an army that is closely integrated with the masses, learning from and relying on the masses. In this region, about 70 percent of the people recruited into the NPA come from the local peasantry. It is an army that puts politics, the politics of revolutionary struggle and transformation, in command. It is an army that is mobilizing the masses to change the world and to change themselves.
Today, as part of the recovery process, the great majority of NPA forces are spread out in small groups engaged in mass work--although there are also some squads which are relatively concentrated in the central areas of the guerrilla fronts. The basic NPA formation is a squad of 7 to 12 members, which functions as, or subdivides into smaller, "armed propaganda units." The average age of the rank and file is about 18 to 21, that of officers about 30 to 33.
I asked about the tasks of a typical squad. It was explained to me that among its main tasks are: ideological training, study, and reproduction of propaganda materials; political organizing, educating, and mobilizing the masses, especially for the agrarian revolution; economic work, helping the masses to improve agricultural production and incomes; organizational work, including communications, personnel and recruitment; and military operations.
Members of the units are trained to become what are called "comprehensive fighters." This means developing the skills to fight, educate, and do propaganda--"so that," as ka Lino explained, "if one of us dies, another can take their place." Political training is principal. As Isabel put it, "a guerrilla without ideology is no good."
I was curious about what writings by Mao people might study. Tess told me about the wide use of what they call the "5 Golden Rays"--Mao's famous short essays, like "Serve the People," and "In Memory of Norman Bethune"--which emphasize the principles of serving the people, hard work and self-sacrifice, and internationalism.
Each squad or unit has a concrete plan of activity and engages in regular assessment and criticism.
The squad I was with works among peasants in 15 to 20 barrios in this guerrilla front. A barrio is the basic village unit in the Philippine countryside. The barrios this squad has responsibility for are regularly visited, and some of the squad members will stay in them for a few days. "When we knock on the peasants' doors at midnight," Carlo explained, "they let us in, and we talk to them about the armed struggle. But when the peasants look out their windows and see the enemy coming, they keep their doors shut--or maybe they'll let them in just for water, because they are threatened."
Luis, an NPA officer and leader of this squad, told me more about the work: "We organize against cattle-rustling and protect the peasants against illegal logging and fishing [which harm the peasants' livelihoods and cause environmental damage]. We fight the abuses of merchants and of the military. We help the peasants with planting and agricultural cooperation. We look into the situation of enemy agents and spies in the barrios--and when the time is right they are punished."
I was told that women make up about a quarter of the personnel of the NPA units in this region but that the percentage is higher elsewhere. From my own observation, I found the relations between the men and women fighters to be extremely comradely. People worked together, rotated between cooking, guard, and other tasks, and treated each other as equals. Political and personal problems are collectively discussed out. In talking with the fighters, I also found an awareness of the economic and social issues and problems facing women in the countryside.
Isabel, as I mentioned, is a regional party leader. Yet here she was working and traveling with this squad. I learned that one of the policies adopted as part of rectification has been to link leaders more closely with the units doing mass work. The revolution is also trying to cut down the bureaucracy that had grown under the influence of the revisionist line.
Naturally, I was here to find out as much as I could about the struggle in the Philippines. But the Filipino comrades also peppered me with questions about conditions and the struggle in the United States. They knew that I was a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, and were keenly interested in hearing me talk about revolutionary strategy and tactics in the "belly of the beast." I was also asked to make a presentation about the people's war in Peru.
What Luis Had To Say
Early on during my stay at the camp, I had the opportunity to talk more with Luis, the squad leader. I wanted to hear his assessment of the situation.
Me: What is the greatest strength of the enemy?
Luis: Its many guns and its intelligence [surveillance, networks of agents, etc.].
Me: What is the enemy's greatest weakness?
Luis: Its lack of support from the people, its blindness and arrogance.
Me: How do you assess the immediate situation in this area?
Luis: We are strong in propaganda work, but our mass base and recruitment have to be strengthened. There are still areas we had to abandon that have to be recovered.
Me: How will the U.S. respond if the situation heats up?
Luis: We are taught that we will face U.S. imperialism.
Me: The NPA has been fighting for almost 30 years. How do you maintain morale?
Luis: We follow principle. We try not to repeat mistakes. We teach people about protracted people's war. When rectification first started, there was some decline in morale. Now things are better overall. But we need to do more political study. I want to raise my political level.
Me: Can the revolution win?
Luis: Yes, there are more people wanting revolution than there are reactionaries.
Me: But what about the enemy's military strength?
Luis: The people are decisive.
Our discussion was winding down. It was time for lunch. Which suited me just fine. Over the last few days I had acquired a taste for the gabi (a green whose stem and leaf are cooked in coconut milk), morsels of dried fish, and rice that awaited us.
PART II: THE AGRARIAN REVOLUTION AT THE GRASS ROOTS: LAND REFORM
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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