Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has officially declared the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army (CPP-NPA) as a terrorist organization, christening what could be a bloody and devastating war against the rural revolutionaries.
For nearly 50 years, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist NPA has waged a prolonged insurgency against successive governments in Manila that it says serve the interests of U.S. imperialism rather than poor people and Indigenous communities in resource-rich rural areas coveted by multinational mining firms and local exporters.
The Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) welcomed Duterte's decision. The top echelons of the military have been accused of pressuring Duterte into halting peace talks with armed guerrillas, as did senators who pointed to the NPA's inclusion in a U.S. "foreign terrorist organization" list.
As mayor of Davao, Duterte proclaimed "Long Live the NPA" while hailing the group's conduct in their treatment of prisoners and strict adherence to international humanitarian law.
"It was a proclamation declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army as a designated identified terrorist organization under RA (Republic Act) 10168, the Human Security Act," Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a news briefing.
On November 19, Duterte called the communist rebels "criminals" and "terrorists" after complaining that rebel violence had continued during the negotiations, citing a four-month-old child who was unintentionally killed during an NPA ambush on a police car.
Following the incident, the Maoist guerillas promptly issued a statement expressing condolences for the child's death while pledging to take further measures to account for the fatality.
Last week, the Philippines military claimed a major victory in Nasugbu, Batangas province, after killing 15 NPA combatants in a "firefight" between the red fighters and Air Force commandos joined by police. Critics, citing villagers, accused the military of massacring NPA combatants who had apparently been on the retreat and were vastly outgunned.
Across social media and in statements, critics accused the AFP of "overkill," gunning down the retreating NPA with heavy-caliber weaponry to such an extent that the Air Force blew limbs from their bodies and chunks from their torsos.
Among the dead was 22-year-old University of the Phillippines student Jo Lapira, a petite young woman known as a "tiny activist." Following press coverage of her deeds in college and activism on behalf of women's rights, a photo of her dead body wrapped in sheets was circulated online by the Legal Army Wives Facebook page.
"The haphazard handling of the crime-scene investigation points to a whitewash, amid initial reports that also point to excessive use of force and overkill on the part of AFP and PNP operatives," women's group GABRIELA said.
Meanwhile, progressives decried the separate killings of beloved progressive Catholic priest Marcelito "Tito" Paez in Nueva Ecija, who was killed by unknown assailants, and Lovelito Quiñones, a pastor of Kings Glory Ministry who was branded an "NPA terrorist" by local press following his murder by the AFP. Both were found with guns following their respective deaths in separate locations in Luzon, but neither victim bore any residue on their bodies, suggesting the guns were planted.
Human rights NGO Karapatan said "this is the chilling effect of the Duterte regime's fascist policies and pronouncements, one on top of the other."
"This fascist and terrorist regime has turned the entire country into a killing field, which renders nobody safe," said Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay. "Priests, doctors, lawyers, students, human rights defenders, peasant and indigenous communities, and urban poor communities are open targets by the state’s security forces, emboldened and reassured by their commander-in-chief."
President Duterte has also ordered the police to actively support the drugs enforcement agency in his war on drugs, his spokesman said on Tuesday.
The drugs enforcement agency (PDEA) will remain the lead agency in the war on drugs, but spokesman Harry Roque said the police, along with other agencies, "shall resume to provide active support to PDEA," citing a memorandum signed by Duterte.
Duterte suspended anti-narcotics police operations in January after questions were raised about conduct.
Police say their operations have only claimed 4,000 lives, but Karapatan says officers have murdered nearly 15,000 people in extrajudicial killings, mainly of small-time pushers and drug addicts.
The drug war poses a dilemma for those attempting to address social injustice through legal means, says Jose Maria Sison, the exiled 78-year-old founder of the CPP and NPA, in an interview with journalist Inday Espina-Varona published online.
"The mass murder of nearly 15,000 poor suspected drug users and pushers under Oplan Tokhang and Double Barrel has alerted the revolutionary movement to the high probability that Duterte would use the method of mass murder to exterminate legal activists in a futile attempt to deprive the besieged rural communities of succor and protection from the legal activists," Sison says.
"Thus, the mass organizations are under advice by cadres to develop the urban underground. Unwittingly, Duterte is now driving thousands of legal activists to the ranks of the NPA, as Marcos did when he declared martial law in 1972.
"Duterte is crazy and serious and is capable of murdering thousands of legal activists and suspected revolutionaries and bombing communities, as well demonstrated in the so-called war on illegal drugs and in bombing Marawi City to the ground. But he cannot ground the Left to the dust."
In addition, the clandestine communist party enjoys membership across the Phillippines and deep roots in the masses and thus can't be easily snuffed out, Sison said.
"The advantage of the CPP is that more than 90 per cent of its cadres and members are not known to the enemy. Just to kill one real communist, the enemy has to kill 100 to 1000 non-communists.
"One more important thing: the CPP and the people have the NPA, people's militia, the armed city partisans and the self-defense units of the mass organizations... If Duterte kills too many non-communists, he himself will be exterminated in a short while by the people or by his own military and police."