COMMENTARY: The other Mindanao conflict (First of 2 parts)

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/11 October) — In a span of one week, communist guerrillas scored major propaganda coups that included wide coverage for the unprecedented simultaneous raids on three mining companies in Surigao del Sur, long the hotbed of insurgency in Mindanao not related to the Moro conflict.

These raids were followed by the release of ‘prisoners of war’ (POWs) held captives for at least two months by separate New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla units.

These apparent coordinated rebel activities underscore not only the gravity of the other Mindanao conflict but also highlight the apparent helplessness of the Philippine military.

Mindanao, a land of sharp contrasts and contradictions despite being endowed with rich mineral and natural resources, has never lived in long stretches of peace throughout its recorded history.

The Moro people have resisted invaders and colonizers for centuries to protect and later reclaim their lands.

The communists have made Mindanao their laboratory of everything that has something to do with Mao Zedong’s protracted people’s war.

It is easy to dismiss the Communist Party of the Philippines together with its military wing, the NPA, in Mindanao as a spent force.  The island became a failed experiment of the rebels’ brief but disastrous folly with insurrectionism in the turbulent 1980s.  It is in the island where the darkest period of the communist movement in the country took place.   Hundreds of cadres, activists and sympathizers perished in the infamous anti-Zombie campaign purportedly aimed at ridding the CPP-NPA of deep penetration agents from the government only for the Mindanao leadership of the Underground Left to later admit it was an episode of grave “tactical, organizational and ideological errors.”

The communist saw its membership and armed strength decline significantly in the aftermath of the deadly anti-DPA campaign.  It even worsened when an ideological debate wrecked havoc within the rebel organization further decimating its ranks.

By the mid 1990s, the military proclaimed it has reduced the communist movement into irrelevance.

It took the communists another 10 years or so to again “make their presence felt.”

If the Surigao attacks and almost simultaneous releases of “POWs” were indications, then the communist rebels are now back with a vengeance.

High and low and high

The real strength of the NPA will never be known to the public except for the top echelons of the communist movement.

But it is a widely acknowledged fact that half of the armed strength of the NPAs is in Mindanao, perhaps even slightly higher.  At the height of the Marcos dictatorship, the military said the armed regulars of the NPA numbered almost 25,000 – a figure the communist movement neither confirmed nor denied.

Based on the number of guerrilla fronts then, at that time around 72 nationwide, the estimate was grossly overblown, however.  There could have been no more than 12,000 armed NPA regulars all over the country even at the peak of the communist rebellion (mid 1980s).

Today, the communists claim they are now operating in 81 provinces with over 120 guerrilla fronts all over the country.  Thirty two of these guerrilla fronts are found in Mindanao, according to Mindanao rebel spokesman Ka Oris, a.k.a Jorge Madlos.

The Philippine military however believes there are only 23 NPA guerrilla fronts in Mindanao, more than half of them in the Davao region which reportedly has a combined strength of 800 armed regulars.

Even using the military figure of NPA guerrilla fronts in Mindanao, this is still a significant statistic compared to the mid-1980s when there were only 21 guerrilla fronts scattered all over the island.

The recent rebel activities in the Davao and Caraga regions are clear indications that the rebel movement either has already regained its lost strength or has grown even stronger than it was 25 years ago.  The fact that the rebels in Surigao can mobilize a battalion of armed regulars in a coordinated offensive also shows that their armed capability has also improved as they recover from almost a decade of setbacks and decline.

This is not to romanticize the rebels, but never did it happen in the history of the communist insurgency that they were able to launch simultaneous attacks on a scale seen last week in Surigao. (Edwin G. Espejo writes for the www.asiancorrespondent.com)

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