Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Communists regrouping in Philippine rural areas

SOCIAL JUSTICE After a slump in support from the group's heyday in the 1980s, the Communist Party now presents the country with its `utmost security concern'

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , AGTONGANON RANGE, PHILIPPINES

Holding their guns and a red communist New People's Army flag, guerrillas perform in a clandestine gathering to celebrate the 35th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines on Friday in the rebels' mountain stronghold in Surigao del Sur province in southern Mindanao island.

PHOTO: AFP

Christopher Suazo was in the jungle, wearing torn jogging pants and cradling an M-1 rifle. At 18, he had managed only three years of schooling when he joined the Communist Party three months ago.

Like many others, Suazo was motivated by a perceived injustice. His father and uncle, both farmers, were killed in March -- gunned down, he said, by the hired hands of a town mayor whom the military protects.

The Communist rebellion in the Philippines began 35 years ago. It foundered but has regained strength and, according to military estimates, now counts 10,000 fighters in its armed wing, the New People's Army.

The Communists "are our utmost security concern at present," even though they have been overshadowed by Muslim insurgents, said Colonel Daniel Lucero, a military spokesman. "We consider them a much bigger threat than the Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the Jemaah Islamiyah," he said.

Since September, Suazo has been moving around in the mountains here on the southern island of Mindanao, alert for enemies who lurk in the jungles below, but happy with his decision to join.

"I can only be safe here with the New People's Army," he said. "One day I and my family will have justice."

In their foggy camp high in the mountains of Compostela Valley Province, the Communists go about their business: training cadres in military tactics and martial arts, organizing the residents below, helping peasants on their farms and studying what they call the "evils of US imperialism."

"The US is a brutal enemy," a guerrilla leader known as Richard told a dozen rebels during a class about the invasion of Iraq. "It will not hesitate to use or kill its own people."

Rubi del Mundo, a guerrilla spokeswoman, said: "US interventionism is even more blatant nowadays. It used to just influence the passing of Philippine laws to benefit the business interests of American companies here. Now the US is directly involved in counterrevolutionary activities" in the Philippines.

The number of rebels peaked at more than 25,000 in the 1980s, according to military estimates, but government spies began to penetrate the ranks of the New People's Army. Party officials purged the movement, torturing and killing hundreds of suspected spies.

The purges nearly destroyed the movement, but it began to creep back once the Communists sent guerrillas in the cities back to the countryside. In many remote parts of the country, the party functions as the government, providing services and a basic livelihood.

Hardly a week goes by without two or three gun battles, and the military has responded with tough measures that have been roundly criticized.

Philippine analysts say it would be wrong to assume that Communist ideology is the main force driving the movement.

Jim, a 27-year-old former seminarian who has been in the mountains since 1996, said, "The more I see the suffering of the people, the more I am convinced of the justness of this cause."

Jim's wife, his mother, his four siblings and an uncle are also guerrillas. They joined the movement after Jim's father, a union activist, was abducted by the military during the Marcos years. He has never been found.

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