The defense and military establishments are engaged in vicious and intensified psychological operations against the government’s main enemy — the communist rebel movement.

They sought to demonize the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, long abandoned by communist states like the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and the People’s Republic of China.

These countries have learned that a centrally planned economy won’t work; they embraced the capitalist system but kept the political ideology to tighten control of the people.

Other countries that call themselves democracies are also exercising such strict controls amid the coronavirus pandemic in the guise of containing the deadly viral disease, exacerbating political conditions.

Armed conflicts around the world have increased during the pandemic despite appeals from the United Nations and Pope Francis to halt offensives and work together to defeat an unseen common enemy.

In the Philippines, the pandemic did not stop the government and the rebel groups, including the small but violent Islamist militant groups in the south, from attacking each other as reports of armed clashes, bombings and recruitment continued.

A “National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict” (NTF-ELCAC) was formed by Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 to battle anti-government forces not only through arms but also in the hearts and minds of the people.

Under Executive Order 70, Duterte wanted to institutionalize the “whole-of-nation” approach in attaining inclusive, just and sustainable peace nationwide.

The Philippines has been trying to suppress the Maoist-led rebellion for more than 50 years. It began as a land rights problem as millions of Filipinos toiled on land that they did not own under a feudal system inherited from Spanish colonizers and later from wealthy Filipino families.
Initially, ideology played a key role in the rebellion as local peasants and ordinary workers were inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Tsarist Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe.

With a lot of United States support, the administration of President Ramon Magsaysay helped end the agrarian-based “Hukbalahap” rebellion in the 1950s.

But the problem resurfaced in the late 1960s under President Ferdinand Marcos’ administration as he faced a twin rebellion — one from the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and the other from separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The abuses of security force, corruption, neglect, injustice, ignorance, inequality and poverty had further swollen the ranks of the rebels, peaking in the mid-1980s when the rebel force reached about 25,000 armed regulars in almost a quarter of the country’s 42,000 villages.

The restoration of democratic space under President Corazon Aquino and the economic boom during the administration of President Fidel Ramos, who introduced decentralization, deregulation and privatization of state-owned businesses, led to the reduction of poverty and economic growth.

It led to a climate of political stability as Ramos entered into peace agreements with all anti-government forces, including rogue soldiers who tried to overthrow Cory Aquino six times in her six-year term until 1992.

The NPA strength was cut down to a little over 5,000 armed regulars as peace talks were brokered by Norway. Deals were made to end the Muslim rebellion as well as with rogue soldiers.

Two years after Ramos stepped down, the rebels’ strength grew again under President Joseph Estrada who was ousted less than three years into office over corruption allegations. Poverty went up due to the 1997 financial crisis and his expensive war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000.

His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had initial success in reversing the growth of the twin insurgencies but toward the end of her nine years in office, as she lost public support after an election scandal and corruption scandals, the rebels’ strength grew again.

Extrajudicial killings, which claimed the lives of more than a thousand people — lawyers, activists, journalists and suspected rebels — were the main driver for recruitment to the rebels’ ranks.

Although the killings and human rights violations continued under Benigno Aquino III, he was more successful in bringing down the rebels’ numbers to almost 4,000 armed regulars.

The government of President Rodrigo Duterte feared that the rebels had resumed active recruitment as the economy went into recession and poverty incidence rose due to job cuts and loss of livelihood.

Army Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, commander of the Southern Luzon Command and spokesman for the NTF-ELCAC, has been on the offensive, warning celebrities like Liza Soberano and former Miss Universe Catriona Gray against falling into the propaganda of the rebels.

Although Parlade was cautioned by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana against “red-tagging” or red-baiting the celebrities without any evidence, Parlade was given authority to educate the public about the dangers of supporting advocacies of organizations identified to have links with the communist rebels.

The military’s propaganda is a hard sell. The military is not the proper authority to make statements warning against infiltration by left-wing organizations in the society.

No amount of threats and intimidation will stop left-wing groups from recruiting in schools, in workplaces, in poor communities and in organizations espousing rights for women, children and in the media.

Soldiers are poor communicators. They are experts in managing violence so every time Parlade talks about efforts by rebel front organizations to malign the government and recruit people for the rebels’ armed regulars, it is seen as propaganda material even if he is sincere in his warning.

The rebels will continue to recruit from the population as long as they have legitimate grievances against the government, like injustice, inequality, ignorance, neglect and corruption.

The NTF-ELCAC should be a civilian-led organization but the more Parlade and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon are seen as talking heads for the task force, it is not believable.

The military has also protested after Facebook took down several accounts and pages, traced to security forces, over violations of community standards.

Again, the military’s propaganda backfired. An army captain has no business acting as an administrator of a social media page championing advocacies of parents who fear the recruitment of rebels in schools and community.

The best way to counter rebel recruitment and propaganda is not counter-propaganda from the military. Soldiers need not worry about rebel recruitment if the population are critical thinkers and have a higher level of literacy.

The government must invest in education, teaching demoratic principles and values and showing the differences between the political systems, including the communist ideology. But let the students decide for themselves which political system is better.

Government must also invest in removing the roots of rebellion. Looking back at the country’s roller-coaster effort to address the insurgency, you will discover that improvement in the quality of life of the people is an effective tool in countering rebel recruitment.

A respected army general, Jorge Segovia who was assigned to the Davao region as division commander, found a way to defeat the rebels in their own turf.

Poverty, he said, was not a factor as people in the countryside have learned to accept their position in life. But they are easily swayed to support the NPAs because of two factors — injustice and inequality.

They should be given equal opportunity to improve their quality of life through education, health care, livelihood and swift justice.

Sometimes, poor people run to the NPAs for swift justice if their livestock is stolen and a person in authority ignores their complaint. You cannot blame them if they obtain justice from the rebels rather than their corrupt and absentee local official.

The only way to defeat the rebels is for the government to be present every time the people need them, effectively delivering basic services and dispensing fair justice to all.

The military has superior firepower, manpower, logistics and resources but it has failed to defeat a handful of communist rebels for more than five decades.

It’s time to re-examine the government’s counter-insurgency approach. The best strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people is not through propaganda, military warnings and “red-tagging” people. The civilian agencies must take the lead to improve the delivery of services and most importantly fair justice to all.

In ending the insurgency, action is more potent than words.