By Susan Palad
Davao City, Philippines “Winning the hearts and minds of our people is our priority,” the general declared. He was the Regional Unified Commander of Southern Mindanao during the last legs of the Marcos regime.
Five Presidents later, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is still confronted by the insurgency problem that has plagued the country since the late 1960s. The Regional Unified Command gave way to the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom) with an area of operations covering 17 provinces and 20 cities, a total land area of 46,353.22 square kilometers and an estimated population of 13.5 million.
Within this area are ancestral domains of the country’s Indigenous Communities, rich with natural resources: timber, gold, and fertile farmlands. Some 35 percent of the forces of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), are also operating in the area through their Regional Committees and Guerilla Fronts.
Many NPA fighters are Indigenous people. With little education and opportunities for employment, they are susceptible to rebel recruitment. For every four NPA fighters, three are IPs. They are valued for their familiarity with mountainous terrain, their stamina and their ability to recruit new fighters from among their kinsfolk.
Four years into the Duterte Administration, however, the AFP has claimed a significant reduction of the threat posed by these groups. Guerilla Fronts have been dismantled or downgraded. NPA fighters, many of them Indigenous People (IP), surrendered in droves. A notable returnee is Datu Guiba Apoga a Manobo tribal leader in Davao del Norte who enjoys wide influence among several tribal groups.
Extortion activities victimizing corporations and small business people have reportedly decreased. “We are making headway in our campaign against insurgency,” says every high-ranking military officer. The AFP has confidently declared that the New People’s Army would be rendered insignificant by 2022.
A Fulfilling Engagement
My engagement with EastMinCom started in 2013 when I joined its Multi-Sectoral Governance Council, which makes a regular assessment of its Army Transformation Road Map. On the side, I was also part of a network of civil society and non-government organizations, Bantay Bayanihan, which served as an Oversight for the AFP’s Oplan Bayanihan. It was a strategic plan that was supposed to eradicate once and for all the insurgency problem.
Unfortunately, OPLAN Bayanihan, which was supposed to bring down the services and provide opportunities to conflict-affected communities, had loopholes. The plan envisioned 12 government agencies working together, but in fact the AFP did virtually all the work with little support from the other agencies. The AFP spent much time campaigning, in vain, for support and resources.
Even with the involvement of the Office of The Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the plan, which now included the Whole of Nation approach, did not bring the expected results. The problem was compounded by the bureaucratic intricacies of the policy of Local Government Devolution and the apathy local government executives, which was either deliberate or politically motivated.
There was one exception, the mayor of a major city within the EastMinCom, Rodrigo R. Duterte of Davao City, who got elected as the country’s president in 2016. He brought with him into the presidency a wealth of experience in dealing with civil society and left-leaning organizations. He had “on the ground” experience, which his predecessors lacked.
Initially, he appointed left-leaning individuals to his cabinet but later opted for military officials in key positions. Among them was Gen Eduardo Año who was the Commander of the 10th Infantry Division of EastMinCom. It was during his command that the AFP was finally able to capture the dreaded and elusive NPA Commander Parago in 2015 after months of surveillance. For decades Commander Parago was the terror of the twilight in NPA-infested areas.
Año was later appointed as Chief of Staff of the AFP. Upon his retirement from the military, the President immediately appointed him to head the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), which oversees the local governments and the Philippine National Police.
Getting to the Root Causes
One after the other, Año’s four successors as commanders of the EastMinCom rose to become Chief of Staff of the AFP. The present Chief of Staff, Gen. Gilbert Gapay was once a Deputy Commander of the EastMinCom. All of them knew the issues and concerns and the areas they needed to focus on as they addressed the root causes of the insurgency.
Subsequently the President has signed Executive Order 70, which serves as a common platform for all of those involved in responding to the armed conflict’s root causes. It finally “institutionalized the approach to attain an inclusive and sustainable peace in the country.” It includes a “mechanism for localized peace engagements or interventions but is nationally orchestrated, directed, and supervised.”
That the President himself heads the platform speaks of its urgency. The military no longer has to waste time asking for support from agencies and local government units, which are now officially bound to extend that support. Not all military commanders are sold on the peace initiative. “This is not what we were trained for,” complain some officers. “We were trained for combat against the enemies of the state.”
But mere combat does not solve insurgency. The NPA has set up shadow governments in areas that they control in an effort to impress on the local population the incompetence, corruption, and negligence of government officials. Through the EO the government hopes to disabuse the people of the NPA narrative by ensuring that all programs to address popular needs and grievances will be faithfully carried out.
I am familiar with the realities in Mindanao areas affected by conflict because, apart from my engagement with EastMinCom, I am also involved in the Mindanao Humanitarian Volunteers for Peace (MHVP), a civil society organization that has been bringing medical services and humanitarian aid in another part of Mindanao, the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces. There is also much to be told about working for peace in that other part of Southern Philippines, but that’s another story.
In February of this year, my involvement with the Mindanao Humanitarian Volunteers for Peace (MHVP) brought me for the first time to the mountains of San Fernando, Bukidnon. It was also our first engagement with the Philippine Army.
Hotbed of Rebellion
San Fernando, Bukidnon lies within a hotbed of the insurgency. The 89th IB of the Philippine Army headed by Lt. Col. Silas Trasmontero was encamped opposite the headquarters of the NPA Southern Mindanao Regional Command (SMRC) that was bolstered by a group called Guerilla Front 55.
Within the area operated a shadow government that had a tight grip on seven barangays or villages. Many residents of these villages were “farmers by day and NPAs by night” with 184 serving in the police force of the shadow government.
Rebel recruitment was carried out regularly through nine salugpungan schools– informal schools established in communities where the government could not penetrate due to their geographical isolation or because of the strong influence of the NPA. Salugpungan is a local terms that denotes the makeshift state of the schoolhouse. Some were established by left leaning non-government organizations. San Fernando, reportedly, also provided the IPs that were transported to Haran, a religious facility in Davao, where they man the frontlines in rallies against the government
Where is the 89th IB in its campaign against insurgency? Trasmontero supported the move of the Department of Education upon the appeal of the tribal councils to stop the operations of the nine salugpungan schools and helped in building nine new schools in the area so the children are not deprived of their right to education.
Now, within his area of responsibility (AOR) are the salugpungan schools established by the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and the Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation Inc. The Department of Education provided the schoolteachers. The schools sometimes tap the private business sector for additional resources. The NPA’s SMRC, which used to oversee rebel operations in Bukidnon and five other provinces, has transferred headquarters.
When I talked with Trasmontero recently, he said, “We have dismantled the shadow governments.” He said the newly built road that extends from Davao del Norte to Bukidnon has been making it easier for farmers to transport their farm produce to market. Entrepreneurs are coming into these once forsaken areas.
There are many problems every step of the way, he said but 80 percent of our efforts are in peace building and 20 percent in military operations in order to support the 80 percent. That well may be a formula for winning hearts and minds in conflict-stricken areas, at least in Mindanao.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.