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The Counterinsurgency Campaign

The armed forces' primary mission in the late 1980s was combating the communist insurgency. During Marcos's last years, the communist movement expanded rapidly in political influence and military strength. By 1986, when Aquino came to power, the armed forces estimated that there were some 22,500 regular NPA guerrillas active in sixty-three of the country's seventy-three provinces. Reported insurgent strength peaked the following year at about 26,000 people. The Muslim insurgency, meanwhile, was relatively quiet. Although the military maintained forces in Moro areas, clashes with government forces were infrequent and the threat of a full-scale resurgence was low (see The Communist Insurgency; The Moros , this ch.).

Despite many well-publicized programs, the counterinsurgency effort in the early and mid-1980s was clearly failing to stem the rising tide of communist influence. Government estimates of NPA strength more than tripled between 1983 and 1986, from around 6,000 to more than 20,000. Recognizing the growing problem, Marcos escalated the counterinsurgency effort, emphasizing civic action. Under the aegis of the Home Defense Program, military units constructed roads and schools, provided disaster relief, assisted in maintaining security and public utilities, and performed law enforcement. Army engineer units, greatly expanded with United States assistance, played a key role in these development efforts. The armed forces also took part in literacy projects and the National Livelihood Program, which were designed to improve the standard of living in rural areas.

These programs notwithstanding, the government lost ground in its efforts to win hearts and minds. Part of the reason was the declining popularity of the Marcos government and increasing criticism of the armed forces. Many Filipinos felt that those in the military, particularly in the Philippine Constabulary and the militia, the Civilian Home Defense Force, had become increasingly abusive and corrupt. Human rights groups documented numerous petty crimes as well as more serious instances of unlawful arrest, torture, and "salvaging," the assassination of suspects and detainees. Most victims were suspected insurgents or their supporters. Public respect for the military eroded while relations between the armed forces and important groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, deteriorated. Attempts to improve discipline within the armed forces through retraining, punishment, and dismissal appeared to do little to quell growing public fear and suspicion.

Initially, the Aquino government reversed the decline in human rights performance and made notable strides in restoring the tarnished image of the military. The 1987 constitution outlawed torture and all forms of "secret and incommunicado detention." It also established a permanent Commission on Human Rights and directed that the militia, constabulary, and police forces--frequent targets of abuse complaints--be disbanded. The armed forces were far less abusive in 1986 according to human rights groups. However, military discipline apparently worsened over the next two years. In 1987 military personnel were primary suspects in the assassination of a prominent leftist political activist and in two other incidents that resulted in the deaths of twelve Manila demonstrators and seventeen rural villagers. International human rights monitors alleged that abuses in 1988 were as bad as they were under Marcos. In an apparent reaction to mounting criticism, the military renewed efforts to improve civil-military relations, and reported abuse by the military declined over the next two years.

Human rights remained a concern in 1991. According to the United States Department of State's 1990 annual human rights report to Congress, abuses--including extrajudicial killings-- continued. The report also criticized the government's failure to prosecute those responsible for the crimes. Lapses in the administration of justice were attributed in part to the strong imperative of the military to protect its own members, who were tried in military courts. Convictions on human rights violations were rare. Still, by 1990 the overall armed forces human rights record under Aquino was much improved over the Marcos era.

Although the Aquino government scored other successes in its counterinsurgency campaign, initial efforts proved disappointing. The new administration hoped that many NPA personnel could be coaxed out of the hills following the overthrow of Marcos and took up the theme of reconciliation in 1986. One of Aquino's first acts was to release political detainees, including captured CPP chairman Jose Maria Sison. Later, following talks with senior representatives of the communists' National Democratic Front, the government agreed to a sixty-day cease-fire, which ended in February 1987. The president also issued an executive order establishing the National Reconciliation and Development Program. The revived rebel amnesty program was inaugurated in January 1987 to encourage NPA defections by offering land, job training, and assimilation into society. The reconciliation approach was a disappointment to the government, however, as few insurgents surrendered. As a result, Aquino altered government strategy in March 1987 when she announced the "unleashing" of the military.

Following the 1986 change of government, the military resumed full-scale counterinsurgency operations with a new strategy known as Mamamayan, meaning people. Mamamayan was similar in most respects to the previous counterinsurgency, or COIN, plan, Marcos's Katatagan (stability), but added President Aquino's theme of reconciliation to the original program of "clear, hold, consolidate, and develop." The revised COIN plan called for military units, with the cooperation of other government agencies, to systematically clear areas of insurgents, to hold the region against returning guerrillas, to consolidate support for the government, and to develop the area economically. The first task--clearing rebel-infested areas--was seen as the task of mobile forces--the army battalions and constabulary special action forces. The role of holding and consolidating liberated regions was assigned to territorial forces--the constabulary, police, and militia units.

The updated counterinsurgency strategy was complemented by revamped armed forces tactics that were generally credited with contributing to the insurgency's decline during the late 1980s. Under Aquino, the military continued its shift away from conventional methods such as food blockades, cordon and search operations and hamletting (the forced relocation of villages controlled or threatened by the NPA). These methods, employed during the 1970s war against the Moros, were too often ineffective and counterproductive because they frequently alienated the populace. In other respects, the military's approach to COIN efforts changed little. Most military units operated as they had under Marcos, in static positions protecting town halls, businesses, and major roads.

The deployment of special operations teams beginning in 1987 and the formation of new militia units in 1988 were touted by military leaders as important steps toward more effective COIN. Special operations teams were squad-sized military counterinsurgency teams dispatched to CPP-influenced villages to dismantle the communists' political infrastructure by conducting civic action and propaganda programs. These teams worked in conjunction with the newly revamped militia, now called the Citizens Armed Forces Geographic Units (CAFGUs), to provide security to each remote barangay (see Glossary). The CAFGUs replaced the Civilian Home Defense Force, which was frequently criticized as abusive by human rights groups. Local anticommunist vigilante groups, some associated with the military, also proved effective deterrents to communist organizing and NPA activity in certain areas (see Organization and Training , this ch.).

Improved military intelligence also played an important role in undercutting the insurgency in the late 1980s. Military intelligence agents repeatedly captured top CPP and NPA cadres and gathered revealing CPP and NPA documents. Rodolfo Salas, the CPP's former chairman, was among numerous central committee members rounded up. The fear of government intelligence penetrations of communist ranks contributed to devastating purges of rebel ranks between 1985 and 1988.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to the counterinsurgency campaign in the late 1980s was political, not military. Communist leaders admitted that Aquino, by restoring popular government and democratic institutions, significantly set back the revolutionary movement. Further civilian contributions in the fight against the communists were encouraged by the creation in 1987 of Peace and Order Councils. Established at all levels of government, the councils consisted of political and military leaders as well as selected community representatives and were charged with fostering greater civilian involvement and cooperation in what traditionally had been a military counterinsurgency struggle. A 1989 United States military study, however, concluded that the COIN effort remained largely a military effort despite the communist insurgency's political character.

Foreign and Filipino critics of the government's COIN program further alleged that the communist insurgency had endured for more than twenty years because the Philippines had not effectively addressed the social and cultural roots of the rural rebellion. The communist rebellion, it was said, was fed by the same social and economic inequities that had prompted previous peasant uprisings. The disparity between the small, but very wealthy, elite and the many impoverished was fundamental to the appeal of the revolutionary movement. Issues such as land reform resonated strongly among poor farmers, who also complained of abuses by landlords and politicians. Until such grievances were resolved, observers noted, they would continue to fuel insurgent activity in the country.

Data as of June 1991

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