Most of the government’s executive policies and legislations are perfect on paper. The intentions are noble but when implemented, they turn out to be flawed.

The problem lies in the people who are tasked to carry out these policies and laws. The people have personal interests. More often than not, they are above public interests.

Take President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order No. 70 issued in December 2018. It aimed to synchronize all government’s efforts to defeat the Maoist-led New People’s Army (NPA) rebels who have been waging a protracted guerrilla warfare in the rural areas to overthrow a democratically elected government for more than half a century.

The communist insurgency has hampered the economic growth of resource-rich rural areas, which remained impoverished because foreign and local investors were afraid to invest in these volatile areas.

Duterte’s executive order created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), a “whole-of-nation” approach in defeating the more than 3,000-member Maoist guerrilla force by stimulating local economies, on one hand, and deploying the armed forces to hunt down and destroy the armed rebels, on the other hand.
The government’s counter-insurgency strategy is not new. From the period when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was in power, military leaders knew how to defeat the Maoist-led rebels. There are many counter-insurgency models around the world, including in the region, like Indonesia and Malaysia where communist insurgencies were also a problem 50 years ago.

Unlike the Philippines, its neighboring countries were more successful in defeating communist insurgencies by focusing on social and economic development and relentless army offensive on the ground. They ended the problem in a few years.

In the Philippines, the insurgency peaked in 1985 when the number of armed NPA rebels grew to more than 26,000, scattered in more than 20 percent of the country’s rural villages. In Davao City, the rebels were experimenting on urban warfare, transforming an area called Agdao into a laboratory for mass actions and assassinations — Nicagdao.

When Marcos was chased out of office in 1986, Corazon Aquino took a different approach to ending the insurgency, opening peace negotiations with rebels and releasing jailed leaders, like Jose Maria Sison who founded the Communist Party of the Philippines in December 1968.

Her US-trained military commander, Fidel Ramos, who had served in Vietnam as a member of the Philippine Civil Action Group (Philcag) — the Ameridan’s left hand approach to fighting the Vietcong-backed insurgents in South Vietnam in the 1960s — tried a similar approach.

He introduced the military’s “C-C-H-D”’ concept in fighting the rebels.

The government sends the military to a rebel-infected area to CLEAR. With the help of local leaders, the government will CONSOLIDATE the gains in an area. A citizen army recruited from the villages and trained as part-time soldiers called Citizen’s Armed Forces Geographical Units (Cafgu) will HOLD the area and prevent rebels from returning to an area. The national government will come in the last phase when it DEVELOPS the area so the people will feel the government’s presence and the improvement in their lives.

The military also had an operational campaign plan “Lambat-Bitag,” a concept drawn up by a former soldier-turned NPA rebel, Victor Corpuz, after he was reinstated in the armed forces. He went on to become the military’s intelligence commander before he retired during Gloria Arroyo’s time.

Ramos was so successful that when he succeeded Aquino in 1992, he was able to bring down the numbers of armed NPA to less than 6,000 from 26,000. The economy also improved, cutting down poverty incidence, which was one of the main factors for the growth of the rebel movement during Marcos.

But the vicious cycle of insurgency returned during the brief time Joseph Estrada was in power from 1998 to 2001. The economy slumped due to the 1997 financial crisis. Poverty rose and corruption in government forced the people to turn to the NPA, whose numbers swelled to more than 9,000.

The counter-insurgency plan faltered when the civilian side did not carry out its tasks as many local officials were not in their offices, creating a leadership vacuum which the rebels exploited.

Development projects were not carried as funds for local infrastructure projects were pocketed and diverted to other things.

It took two administrations — those of Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino — to bring down the rebels’ numbers to below 5,000 and finally to a little more than 3,000. Of course, human rights played a role in the counter-insurgency campaign. During the Arroyo period, extrajudicial killings forced the UN rapporteur to look into the situation in the country in 2007.

Duterte’s 2018 executive order puts premium on barangay development, requesting Congress to approve billions of pesos in funds for farm-to-market roads, post-harvest facilities, schools, clinics, and livelihood projects to complement the military’s actions, aided by more advanced equipment like drones, smart bombs, and newer aircraft to find and fix enemy targets.

Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo was so impressed by the military brass’ briefing about the government’s counter-insurgency plan under NTF-Elcac that she gave her support to the program.

Her support for NTF-Elcac, which was a turnaround from her previous position to abolish it, drew adverse reactions from left-wing groups. On paper, the NTF-Elcac was a brilliant policy, but when it was implemented, serious flaws started to come out.

First, the distribution of funds and the number of projects carried out under NTF-Elcac heavily favored some areas, including Davao City which got more than a billion pesos, compared with other rebel-infested towns and cities which got 400 million or less.

Second, NTF-Elcac activities highlighted more of the military operations, including efforts by former army general Antonio Parlade’s red-tagging, which turned off support for the program.

The state’s armed response toward the insurgency increased human rights abuses as police and military units adopted the “Tokhang” operations in running after suspected rebels, treating them as ordinary drug peddlers, couriers, and voters.

In fighting insurgency, the civilian government must take the lead role. Retired generals and active-duty military officers should have lesser roles in the campaign. City and town officials, together with barangay leaders, must be given more active roles so the people in their areas would know a government exists and functions for them.

Government must ensure the delivery of swift justice, education, and health services as well as infrastructure to bring progress to rural and remote areas where the only government the people know is run by the rebels.

The NTF-Elcac must be abolished and replaced by an ad hoc, inter-agency task force led by the national socio-economic planning agency to evenly distribute development projects where they are most needed, not based on political interests.

The new task force should not be military-oriented nor have a very threatening name like “ending local communist armed conflict.” The government needs to be more creative and innovative in naming a new task force to make it more appealing to the people.

Robredo may be right. The government needs something like an NTF-Elcac to bring an end to internal conflict so the military can focus on the growing external threats the country faces. It should not be the same NTF-Elcac but a new agency that would deliver services and social and economic development equally among the poor communities.

Abolish NTF-Elcac but replace it with a more civilian-driven counter-insurgency task force.