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Chapter 5. National Security


Main gate of Fort Santiago in Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila

GEOGRAPHICALLY INSULATED FROM the turmoil and conflict which plagued the Southeast Asian mainland during the decades after World War II, Filipinos perceived no direct external threat to their island nation. Challenges came from within. A series of rural insurgencies plagued the Philippines. In 1990 the government faced three major challenges--Muslim separatists, the communist New People's Army (NPA), and, ironically, the Philippine military, traditionally the government's protector. The rebellion by Filipino Muslims in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago seemed least menacing of the three major challenges to the government. Commonly known as Moros, the Muslims had waged guerrilla warfare since 1972, alternately pressing for either secession or increased autonomy. The intensity of the Moro insurgency, however, had significantly declined since its violent peak in the mid-1970s. Divisions over leadership and goals among the three main Moro factions, reduced external support, pressure by the armed forces, and government political accommodations-- including the creation in 1990 of a Muslim autonomous region-- contained periodic threats of a resurgent Moro rebellion in the 1990s. Although government forces and Muslim rebels clashed only occasionally by 1991, the government still respected the Moros' political and military power and guarded against escalating violence in the south.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military arm, the NPA, presented a greater challenge to the government. Using the Maoist strategy of protracted people's war, the communists had pursued a "national democratic revolution" since the late 1960s. After slow but steady expansion through the 1970s and early 1980s, the communist rebellion grew rapidly during President Ferdinand E. Marcos's last years. By 1985 the NPA operated in a considerable majority of the country's seventythree provinces, and exercised substantial control in some 20 percent of Philippine villages.

Following Corazon C. Aquino's rise to power in 1986, the strength of the NPA peaked, then began to decline. The advent of a popular president was only the first of several significant setbacks for the communists; some were caused by the communists themselves. The CPP's failure to participate in the downfall of Marcos and the subsequent reversal of the rebels' fortunes sparked unprecedented debate within the party over how to pursue the struggle. Repeated arrests of top insurgent cadres also prompted a bloody purge of the rebels' ranks as the communists attempted to weed out suspected government informants. Frustrated with the party's inability to raise more funds domestically through "revolutionary taxes," combined voluntary and coerced donations, the CPP turned to foreign sources increasingly in the late 1980s. Most funds came from sympathetic western political, labor, and charitable groups. Breaking with a longstanding policy of "self-sufficiency," the communists also pursued foreign government support. As of 1991, however, there was no evidence that any nation had responded to the CPP's appeal. With an estimated 18,000 to 23,000 full-time guerrillas in 1991, the CPP and the NPA remained a potent, though not immediate, threat to the government.

Ironically, the Philippine military, long the state's defender against insurgency, posed the most serious threat to the democratically elected government of President Aquino. Most observers traced the military's unprecedented rebelliousness to the Marcos martial law era (1972-81). As the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) grew rapidly in size during the 1970s, so did its leaders' involvement in the nation's political life. Professionalism eroded as Marcos loyalists were rewarded with key positions in the military, government, and civilian corporations. By February 1986, the military was deeply factionalized and widely criticized by human rights groups for abuses and corruption. In the wake of a fraudulent tally of the presidential election and Marcos's refusal to step aside, led by the commander of the Philippine Constabulary Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos and Minister of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, a group of reform-minded officers mutinied and sparked a popular revolt that unseated Marcos and allowed Corazon Aquino to assume the presidency.

Military rebellions continued under Aquino. Three, in July 1986 and January and April 1987, were relatively small affairs led by disgruntled former Marcos loyalists. A potentially serious plot in October to November 1986 was stillborn and resulted in the removal of the minister of national defense, Juan Ponce Enrile. The rebellions of August 1987 and December 1989, however, were credible coup attempts that, by most accounts, almost toppled the president. They were led by many of the same reformist officers that had helped bring Aquino to power. Although only a fraction of the AFP actively supported the coup attempts, many personnel were said to be sympathetic to the mutineers' complaints about the government. The threat of yet another military rebellion persisted in 1991 but had diminished considerably as rebel leaders surrendered to the government and talks began between military leaders and rebels.

When not distracted by coup attempts, the 153,500-strong armed forces focused on combating the communist insurgency and, to a lesser extent, the threat of a rejuvenated Moro rebellion. The ground forces dominated the counterinsurgency effort. The smaller navy and air force provided support and a limited patrol capability. Improvements in the military's image, discipline, and performance during the late 1980s contributed to reversing CPP growth.

With nearly all available resources committed to internal security functions, the AFP's conventional capabilities were modest. The nation had faced no threat of direct foreign aggression since Japan's invasion during World War II. The United States and the Philippines were parties to a mutual defense treaty, and should a credible external threat emerge, the military would be likely to rely on support from the United States. A separate treaty, which was to expire in 1991, provided for the maintenance of several United States military installations in the Philippines. Negotiations on the future of the American bases beyond September 1991 were ongoing in mid1991 .

Data as of June 1991

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