PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte the other day signed a proclamation declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military arm, the New People’s Army (NPA), as terrorist organizations. The move followed his decision to officially end peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the umbrella organization of the country’s rebel groups.
Actually, the proclamation only made official how some sectors of the government like the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been treating the CPP-NPA. When I was detained in a camp in the late ‘80s, the rebels were routinely labeled “CT” or communist terrorist. That time, real terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) didn’t exist yet.
This means that the proclamation wouldn’t change much how elements of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) see the CPP-NPA. It’s effect would rather be felt by non-combatants or civilians in the battle zones and in the legal sphere.
Civilians considered as part of the CPP-NPA mass base could already be treated as terrorists and treated more harshly than the way government forces treat them now. Meanwhile, suspected communist rebels will no longer be charged with political offense or even common crimes (which the government often resorts to) but with terrorism, which under the Human Security Act of 2007 is already a crime.
But the proclamation could also invite a debate on the difference between a terrorist group and a mere insurgent group. I think what prodded the president to declare the CPP-NPA as terrorist groups was the rebel offensive in Bukidnon that killed a policeman and a 4-month old baby and wounded three policemen and three civilians. The baby and the civilians were aboard an SUV trailing a police car.
There are similarities between insurgents and terrorists, like in the possession of goals, but there are also differences, especially in method. For example, insurgents do not usually target non-combatants but favor confrontation with government forces. Terrorists, on the other hand, do not usually challenge government forces directly and have no qualms targeting civilians. Other people, though, do not see any distinction and label all non-state armed groups as terrorists.
Interestingly, the Duterte administration’s recent move differ vastly from the one done under the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos but hews closely to the intention of the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In 1992, Ramos signed Republic Act (RA) 7636 that repealed RA 1700 or the Anti-Subversion Act. RA 1700, enacted in 1957, penalizes mere membership in the CPP, which was declared illegal for trying to overthrow the government. With its repeal, one could no longer be arrested for mere membership in the CPP and other organizations with similar goals.
In 2007, however, The Arroyo administration sought to reintroduce RA 1700 or a new anti-subversion law. The move coincided with the intention of the government at that time to end the communist rebellion in 2010. However, Arroyo failed to get the support of lawmakers and in the end failed to suppress the insurgency.