Even in his death, Jose Maria Sison, the founder and leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), one of the world’s most resilient and longest-running insurgencies, cannot be forgiven by the Department of National Defense (DND).

In a statement, the defense department regretted not having caught and jailed Sison for his numerous crimes against the Republic, including murder, kidnapping, illegal possession of explosives and firearms, and rebellion.

“His death deprived the Filipino people of the opportunity to bring this fugitive to justice under our country’s laws,” the statement said, although technically the former university political science professor did not have any direct participation in the crimes.

But as the leader of the outlawed organization, he was blamed for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the protracted guerrilla warfare that has lasted more than 50 years.

That’s more than 40,000 people in a conflict that was also blamed for stunted economic growth in the resource-rich but impoverished rural areas in the country.

Sison, 83, reorganized a leftist movement on December 26, 1968 in central Luzon, the hotbed of agrarian unrest in the country during the first term in office of the late president Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

Bernabe Buscayno, alias Commander Dante, formed his guerrilla army three months later in the sugarcane fields of central Luzon.

Marcos’s repressive regime helped the New People’s Army (NPA) grow from a ragtag army of peasants to nearly 26,000 toward the end of the Marcos administration.

Rebel influence could be felt in about 20 percent of the country’s 42,000 villages, where a “shadow government” existed at that time in some remote communities where civilian government was absent.

In 1976, Sison and his wife, Juliet, were caught and he faced military trial, but was saved a decade later when Marcos was toppled by a near-bloodless, military-backed civilian uprising, the EDSA People Power revolution.

Democracy icon Corazon Aquino freed Sison and opened peace talks with the rebels’ political arm, the National Democratic Front (NDF).

Sison wasted no time and fled to The Netherlands months later and never returned to the country, although there were some reports Sison had contemplated coming home to resume peace negotiations.

Perhaps, he was already tired with his revolution and was thinking of retiring peacefully, like the other older revolutionaries, Buscayno and Satur Ocampo.

He never got the chance. He died on Friday after he was hospitalized for an unspecified illness.

In a statement, the CPP paid tribute to Sison, calling him “the greatest Filipino of the past century.”

The Communist Party existed in the Philippines even before the outbreak of the Second World War as the ideology spread in Europe after the First World War.

A Soviet-styled Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas was formed in 1930 by a group of labor leaders led by Crisanto Evangelista who even went to Moscow to attend the fourth Congress of leftist trade unions called Progintern. But the PKP had no army.

During the Second World War, a leftist guerrilla army was organized by farmers in central Luzon and was known as the Hukbalahap, which later transformed into a Maoist rebel group in the 1950s under Luis Taruc.

An older version of the Communist Party of the Philippines existed in the early days of the Republic when various leftist groups, including the Partido Sosyalista ng Pilipinas, merged with the PKP.

Even Taruc’s Hukbalahap was part of the old CPP but Ramon Magsaysay ended the Huk insurgency in the 1950s.

The PKP and later the CPP remained a legal political party although the PKP was briefly outlawed during the Commonwealth period.

Sison organized the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) in 1964 with Nilo Tayag and set up his pro-China CPP in 1968, advocating the more attractive Marxist-Leninism-Maoist ideology.

The older Communists stuck with the pro-Soviet PKP, which survived during the Marcos dictatorship as a dormant political party, while Sison’s revitalized CPP attracted younger ideologues and university students and grew into a larger threat group. It was outlawed because of NPA activities.

Other countries, including the United States, had declared the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization after guerrillas ambushed and killed in broad daylight Col. James Rowe, the highest-ranking military officer at the US embassy, in 1990.

In 2020, Congress passed a new anti-terror law and designated Sison and his group as terrorists. But even during the martial law period, the military labeled the NPAs as Communist Terrorists (CTs) in official reports. In later years, they were called Communist Terrorist Groups (CTGs).

Sison was freed after EDSA but the democratic space during Cory’s time also broke up the left. Although the breakup of the old Soviet Union in the 1990s had nothing to do with the CPP, there was a serious split between two factions — the rejectionists (RJ) and reaffirmists (RA).

It was the most serious threat to the communist movement that led to purges and killings of many RJ leaders, kike Arturo Tabara and Felimon “Popoy” Lagman.

The government exploited the split and made a deal with a faction — the Revolutionary Workers Party, created in 1975 after breaking away from Sison’s CPP. The CPP’s Manila-Rizal Regional Party Committee (MRRPC) and its armed wing, the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB), joined the RWP’s Revolutionary Proletariat Army (RPA) and signed a peace deal with the government under Joseph Estrada.

Its leader, Nilo de la Cruz, alias “Sergio Romero,” has abandoned the ABB’s terrorist activities and shifted to organizing trade unions.

After Tabara, Lagman, and dela Cruz, other CPP groups broke away from the CPP. There are as many as seven Communist groups now.

This has led to the weakening of Sison’s CPP-NPA, which the military said has gone down to 2,000 armed members in 24 guerrilla fronts, mostly in the Bicol, Eastern Visayas, and southern Mindanao regions.

“The death of Jose Maria Sison is but a symbol of the crumbling hierarchy of the CPP-NPA-NDF, which he founded to violently put himself in power,” declared the defense department in the statement.

True, the Communist movement may have been greatly weakened over the years but it remains to be seen if Sison’s death will result in the demise of the movement.

There are still a few old guards in the rebel movement, like former Roman Catholic priest Luis Jalandoni and Rafael Baylosis who could rise up to take Sison’s role.

The number of Communist ideologues may be dwindling but the number of people who are victims of injustices, inequalities, and neglect remained high and they would not run out of issues to take up arms on, perhaps not as Communists, but as disgruntled and desperate Filipinos taken into the fold of the NPAs.