Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 27 May 2015

 

In the course of my travel around Mindanao, I sought the opinion of government officials, elected leaders, businessmen and ordinary people I met concerning the NPA (New Peoples’ Army) rebellion.

From these talks, I arrived at an over-riding conclusion. The NPA rebellion, though bothersome, cannot impede the island’s continued economic progress.

NPAs in Mindanao. The NPA rebels have been pushed mainly to the hills where life is difficult and people even poorer. They encamp together, though some live with the people.

The national government has been much more focused on the problems of the Muslim rebellion in recent years. Thus, we seldom hear of the NPA rebellion. It has receded to the background.

However, the NPAs are still around. Vulnerable enterprises operating in rural areas feel their presence through “revolutionary taxation.” Also, sometimes actual light skirmishes with the military or political kidnappings are associated with them. When they release their kidnap victims, it is often through surrender of their victims to a governor or mayor.

Local politicians are fully aware of them. Some of these politicians have a quiet alliance or agreement with them on issues that they bring attention to. The frequency of contacts is often fostered during election periods.

National, local and barangay elections are the vehicles of our democracy to choose the leaders. The NPAs attempt to assert their presence on these occasions through “permits to campaign” or “permits to win.”

Permits to campaign include exaction of payment for posters to be hung, for sample ballots to be distributed, or for face-to-face campaign sorties. The permit to win could include creating scenarios to influence the election outcome.

Where the NPAs are. The NPAs are found in pockets among the poor municipalities of the eastern and central provinces of Mindanao. They operate in hilly and mountainous terrains that are difficult to reach. They are found in the northern and southern provinces of Surigao and Agusan, in the Davao provinces, and in Bukidnon and Sarangani.

The revolutionary tax. The NPAs impose a “revolutionary tax” on businesses that they can reach. Such reach is possible in areas where they can conduct operations, mostly in rural places and on the networks of roads.

Big companies that use the road system and those located in isolated areas are especially vulnerable. Commercial, industrial and transportation companies that move products and raw materials through the provinces have been targeted, even when their main businesses are conducted in the urban areas.

More directly at risk are agricultural operations (farming, fishery and tree farming), mining companies, engineering contractors whose equipment are exposed in their places of operations (especially on the road areas), and transport companies.

In recent times, the burning of equipment of large companies has caught national attention. Such events serve to assure that the revolutionary imposts are paid.

Specific incidents include those of a big mining company in Surigao del Norte. The same have been reported in the cases of a large agricultural corporation in Bukidnon and road construction equipment of contractors, and, occasionally, the bombing of a commuter bus.

In my talk with businessmen’s groups (the Mindanao Business Council, for instance) someone said that businessmen who pretend they do not pay the tax actually do.

The revolutionary tax varies according to the judgment NPA operatives make on the value of the business firm’s operations. When pressed for details in my questioning, I was told that that they assess the charge by using as guides certain ratios, for instance, three percent of gross receipts or five percent of net profits for the year.

In practice, the specific amounts to be paid regularly could be negotiated downward. But the resulting amount is not trivial.

This imposition is no different from the mafia extortion of protection money from a victim. They would inflict harm on that victim if he does not pay. In fact, NPA operatives call it what it is, protection money. Harm comes to those who refuse to deal with their demand for protection.

Banditry or revolutionary impost? There is widespread belief in Mindanao that the NPA’s revolutionary tax is mere banditry today. When demands are made on prospective victims, the victimized do not know if they are dealing with revolutionists or with criminals.

Local government officials and the military suspect that some demands indeed are driven simply by those who are riding on the revolutionary flag to earn easy living.

Some political leaders are hesitant to use the word banditry. For instance, in my talks with them, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City and Gov. Daisy Fuentes of North Cotabato are hesitant to use that label. They believe that they are still dealing with an organized group.

There are reasons to believe, however, that the NPAs are themselves suffering from a weakening base and that the revolutionary tax is only a manifestation of lawlessness in the region.

A narrowed recruitment base. Political developments in the Philippines have allowed for a wider expression of dissent against the government through the parliamentary struggle and the democratic discourse.

The introduction of party list representation through membership in Congress has attracted otherwise vocal persons who could have been recruits of the NPAs under more oppressive times. To participate in the country’s political dialogue is more fulfilling and far safer than fighting in the hills.

Though some party-list groups are often seen as fronts of the NPA agenda, their advocacies are differentiated. They also remain as lively and noisy in the political debate, even though they hardly matter in the larger picture when political decisions are made.

Also, economic factors continue to reduce the NPA edge. Improving economic conditions are the worst enemies in the communist power struggle. Even while unemployment remains large, potential and erstwhile recruits to their cause have found work abroad as labor migrants.

In Mindanao, the recruitment base of the NPAs has narrowed. In their efforts to expand their ranks, they can lately only attract members from indigenous groups – or lumads.

They employ as bait the historic grievance of the lumads – that newcomers from Luzon and the Visayas had grabbed their ancestral lands. However, even this enticement now has strong competition. Through the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), the natives can fight for their rights through their indigenous community leaders.