Words by Celeste Samin
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) which was established through Executive Order No. 70, is Duterte’s adaptation and reintegration of the anti-insurgency campaigns of past administrations. It is simply the latest, but heightened, anti-insurgency campaign of the AFP that has not only continued to fail to address the root causes of armed conflict, but added to the growing pile of social injustices against the Filipino people, particularly the peasantry, indigenous communities, activists, and the media.
The “whole-of-nation” approach is not unique to NTF-ELCAC and has also been forwarded by the anti-insurgency campaign under Benigno Aquino III called the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) or Bayanihan which has also been riddled with politically-motivated extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The culture of these campaigns has been only maintained throughout history by the police and military, using terms such as “holistic”, “integrated”, and “comprehensive” approaches.
The AFP has been recently rightfully hailed as an independent institution since it continues to be a violent repressive force regardless of whoever is in power as backed by the United States (US) military. Even the militaristic “whole-of-nation” approach has been a derivative of the “whole-of-government” approach by the US which they have applied to Iraq, Afghanistan, and in collaboration with the Philippine military in Mindanao. The continuous involvement of the US promotes the AFP’s militaristic approach in solving the socioeconomic roots of armed conflict.
The NTF-ELCAC is not a separate entity that appeared under the Duterte administration nor did it appear independent of history. It is the growth of decades-worth of accumulated and unpunished atrocities that flourishes in the repression of the Filipino people.
The task force prides itself in its Barangay Development Program which funds the “rehabilitation” of communities or barangays they deem to be “NPA-free.” This is an extension of the Development Support and Security Plan (DSSP) “Kapayapaan” established in 2017 under the AFP which, according to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), is a “multi-stakeholder and community-based peace and development effort” that aims to identify communal issues and introduce developmental interventions. The non-specificity of “issues of the communities” and “developmental interventions” that warrants military presence provides exactly the kind of room for the growing militarization and continuous crackdowns in the provinces.
However, the DSSP Kapayapaan has only replaced the preexisting Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan or commonly known as Oplan Bayanihan signed under then President Benigno Aquino III in 2010. In reality, the “deemed” success of IPSP Bayanihan brought the extension and development of DSSP and the current task force.
Aquino’s IPSP’s tagline was “Winning the Peace” through, not shockingly, the whole-of-nation approach. It is under Oplan Bayanihan where community rehabilitation was mainly emphasized as the core strategy in addressing insurgency that required military presence in communities and provinces. This led to the intensified military operations and heavy deployments that did not only displace thousands of indigenous people and farmers but also led to numerous human rights violations.
Under the campaign, the military claimed to have cleared “71 of the country’s 76 provinces” from the NPA, and similar to the Duterte administration, it was riddled with extrajudicial killings.
A year after Aquino began his presidency, Human Rights Watch has already documented seven extrajudicial killings that implicate the military and three enforced disappearances of activists while other instances reported by local media were not investigated “due to time constraints” and the government’s “lackluster efforts.”
The second year of Oplan Bayanihan (2012) involved 45 recorded extrajudicial killings (EJK) that brought the death toll to 129 under Aquino. By then, 12 children were victims, 3 died due to indiscriminate firing of the military, and 4 children and youths were even tagged as “NPA child rebels”.
In the first 10 months of 2015, Human Rights Watch said that 65 activists and human rights defenders have been killed, separate from the report of local advocacy groups where 13 tribal leaders and community members were murdered by the military and paramilitary groups within 8 months of the same year. In addition, 9 journalists were killed in that year alone while the murders under the Aquino administration totaled nearly 300 individuals.
Karapatan separately reported that Oplan Bayanihan resulted in 152 documented cases of EJK, 168 attempted killings, 18 forced disappearances, 80 cases of torture, and 608 illegal arrests.
Despite these records, the Aquino administration still claimed in international forums that the human rights violations are “aberrations”, going so far as to promote generals well-known for violating human rights. They feed this culture of impunity as they simultaneously struggle to curry the favor of the US and obtain the unreleased $13 million worth of military assistance that has been blocked in 2008 due to the calls of solidarity groups because of the intense EJK under the Arroyo administration.
Heightened US Alliance under Arroyo
Then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was the first among all ASEAN heads of state to offer the United States air space and ports in support of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attack. Arroyo and George Bush, then American president, are said to be leading the “fight against terror”.
Both administrations claimed to have understood that it was “parallel with the war against poverty” while the US deploy troops and military equipment, simultaneously assisting the AFP in Mindanao. The US-AFP alliance through the “Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) was said to focus on the “reeducation and retraining of the security forces.”
This alliance was a few months after Arroyo signed Executive order No. 21, Series 2001, or what is commonly known as the “National Internal Security Plan” (NISP) as part of the government’s “Strategy of Holistic Approach” in addressing insurgency.
NISP paved the way for the Department of National Defense (DND)-AFP’s strategy called “OPLAN Bantay-Laya” which had consciously blurred the line between terrorists and civilian activists, a culture they maintained and violently reintroduced in the Duterte regime. Consequently, military operations have been reinforced and strengthened by the US alliance which had indirectly funded consequent atrocities, especially in Mindanao.
By 2006, 120 extrajudicial killings of indigenous people have been recorded with the Lumads of Mindanao and Igorots of Cordillera being the most targeted groups according to a report by the Indigenous Peoples Rights – Monitor (IPR-MONITOR). IP communities suffered frequent and continuous harassment as the military continuously claimed them to be a part of the New People’s Army.
Similar to the Duterte regime, the killings surged when Arroyo declared an “all-out war” against the “communist New People’s Army.” Numerous victims, according to Human Rights Watch, involved left-wing politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and outspoken clergy. A separate report by Karapatan claimed that by 2006, the Philippine military and paramilitary death squads killed “an average of one activist every 36 hours.”
It’s worth noting that a core component of NISP was the “left hand and right hand approach” long introduced even before the Marcos dictatorship. The “left hand” offered developmental projects while the “right hand” involved the militaristic dealing with armed conflict which is exactly the same as the NTF-ELCAC’s campaign with its Barangay Development Program. In actuality, this has long been the blueprint of the AFP carried over from past to present.
Origin of the “left-hand/right-hand” approach
The AFP’s “developmental” role in communities that allowed the growing militarization of the country and facilitated thousands of human rights violations could very well be attributed to the “left hand and right hand approach.” This assumed role has proved beneficial in terms of gaining more power, similar to how the country’s adviser exercised imperialism.
Colonel Edward Lansdale and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US advised President Ramon Magsaysay to have the AFP adopt the “left-hand/right-hand” approach in “defeating communist insurgents” in 1951. This led to the AFP’s gradual participation in socioeconomic and political functions, going as extensively as to involving themselves in infrastructure development and decades later under the Duterte regime, in public health and pandemic response planning.
Rise of the military
The Martial Law Era intensified the direct participation of AFP in governance with active military personnel occupying elective or bureaucratic posts. Marcos’ Operation Plan Katatagan united both military and civilian agencies in addressing the insurgency as the military headed both. The focus had heavily shifted from addressing armed conflict to the maintenance of power by the military, hence the numerous coup attempts by some of the military after the dictatorship.
While the armed struggle is recognized as a result of the lack of humane working and living conditions, the military’s history of attempting to seize power from the government was the failed test of their adherence to democracy.
However, the fact that the same military officials that flourished during martial law were able to extend their stint up to the succeeding administration with Fidel Ramos attaining even the presidency and Juan Ponce Enrile having headed the Senate is itself a testimony to the military’s rise to power.
The trend shows that the military has indeed been consistent, taking their culture of impunity over to succeeding administrations that fed them their power. They are slowly and desperately overtaking and controlling the country to the point that government officials, even presidentiables, would bend to their culture of atrocities in which only the Filipinos would suffer unless the roots of armed conflicts are resolved. [P]