SPECIAL REPORT: In December, Cameron Walker accompanied members of a Filipino prison welfare organisation on a visit to Tagum City Jail. The jail is down a long country road on the outskirts of the city, one and a half hours drive from Davao, the largest city on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao.
Report – By Cameron Walker in Mindanao
Among Tagum City Jail’s inmates are 16 young men aged in their 20s and 30s who were members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Some of them have been wounded in combat.
During my visit, one detainee lifted his shirt to show a sizeable bullet wound on his stomach, which still needed further surgery. Their movement has been fighting the Philippine government since 1969.
Mindanao is considered one of the movement’s strongest regions. Local media often report armed encounters between the NPA and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which have resulted in casualties on both sides.
The Communist Party, along with the other member organisations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) call for the implementation of a 12 point programme that includes genuine land reform, national industrialisation and upholding democratic rights. They also demand an end to the extrajudicial killings of political activists by the Armed Forces and for the release of political prisoners.
The NPA is mostly based in rural areas. It pursues the tactic of building up a strong base in the countryside, the area where the government is weakest, and fighting a protracted war.
In contrast, the Communist Party, which retains political control over the NPA, has a presence throughout the country, even in the cities. The party is an underground organisation so members are unable to openly declare their affiliation.
As the Filipino journalist Benjamin Pimentel Jr wrote: a Communist cadre could be “…the guys sitting beside you in a jeepney, or the young women munching Big Macs at McDonalds”.
Party cadres have important but less dramatic tasks than those of NPA fighters. They write reports, prepare new policy, solicit funds and provide guidance to other cadre, amongst other responsibilities.
Arriving at the jail
Once allowed through the prison gate we were searched and made to show ID. A guard stood by the gate with an assault rifle.
Our cameras, cell phones and belts were confiscated before we are allowed into the visiting area. We had brought a number of bags of groceries for the prisoners to supplement their prison food.
The 16 political detainees were waiting for us in the visiting area. We received a warm welcome. About one hundred other inmates watched us through the barbed wire and metal bars that separated the rest of the prison from the visiting area.
A detainee, with a haircut and facial hair similar to the famous Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, hooked up a PA system. The detainees had organised a short forum to mark December 3, the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners.
The meeting began with the political detainees singing the Internationale. The detainees behind the barbed wire also rose to sing.
This was followed by a number of speeches on Filipino social issues and more singing, which was greeted by enthusiastic cheering and clapping by the other inmates.
I was later told that the political detainees have organised a series of educational programmes on literacy, numeracy and Philippine political economy that have been well received by the other inmates.
They have also earned the respect of their fellow prisoners by helping mediate in disputes between inmates and helping the prisoners work through family and other personal problems.
After the forum I sat down for a discussion with the detainees. Another visitor kindly translated between Bisaya and English for us.
The detainees burst into laughter when I explained that I thought one of them looked a lot like Manny Pacquiao and another looked like a rugby player from New Zealand.
One detainee in particular, a young man in his 20s, who had come from a poor rural background, was keen to answer questions about the current situation in the Philippines and the NPA.
Terrorist designations of the movement
In 2010, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key of the conservative National Party designated the CPP and NPA as “terrorist organisations” under New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act.
Key’s press release, which announced the designation of the movement, along with six other groups, claimed it was responsible for “various terrorist acts, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians”. I was interested to know what the NPA prisoners thought of this.
The detainee explained through our translator that he would not condemn New Zealand because he respected the laws of New Zealand.
However, he would like the NZ government to further study the CPP/NPA and examine if the reasons given for designating the movement are genuine.
He continued to say that Filipinos who had engaged in parliamentary struggle to pursue meaningful social and economic changes have been killed and tortured by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and paramilitary groups.
This situation “has forced people into the NPA and armed struggle”.
NPA members he added “are not holding arms to kill people for no reason but because they have legitimate reasons to fight”.
“There would be no NPA if the government was reforming the laws and system in this country but in reality this is not happening, so this is why there is a war”.
“If the NPA kills civilians for no reason it is like killing themselves because the masses are the foundation of the NPA” – their main support base, he explained.
In contrast he noted that the “government is like a monster with no control – killing civilians and violating human rights”.
He said that he was in high spirits because “the struggle is alive and burning”.
“The fact that the government feels threatened by the CPP/NPA makes us feel we are on the right path. This is why most of the political detainees have not been released. The government feels threatened by them,” he said.
Although he admitted the movement faced many challenges.
“The army and police are used to protect the status quo. If the government did not use the army and police against the people, change would be an easy task.”
“If the government loved the citizen it wouldn’t build prison cells like this – it would instead work to make people a decent life”.
He explained that the only way revolutionary change can be achieved is if the movement tackles the issues that face the different marginalised sectors of the Philippines by not only fighting the government but also providing services, such as health clinics, to the poor communities the state has neglected.
He says he joined the NPA because he knew what sort of society he wanted to create. “No one would join a group without knowing its objectives”.
The picture of the type society he would like to build is “one that is not selfish and where the government looks after other people”.
‘The collapse of Communism‘
In Western countries the ideas of socialism and communism are often discounted by media commentators due to the collapse of the Societ Union in 1991. I was interested to know what my interviewee thought of this.
He gave a very detailed response which unfortunately had to be cut short so my translator could have the chance to translate it properly.
I was told it would be an “error comparing previous socialist states to the movement in the Philippines” because the CPP “is creating a socialist model that fits the objective conditions of the Philippines”.
The party does not take the actions of the Communist parties in Russia, China, Vietnam or other previous socialist states as an exact carbon copy model that should be followed in the Philippines.
“The objective conditions of each individual society decide how the political systems in that country function”. Therefore one cannot just say “it failed in the USSR” so socialism will fail everywhere.
Sadly at this moment we had to abruptly end our conversation because the prisoners were required to return to their cells. I felt as long as our translator did not get tired our conversation could have continued for much longer.
Today Communist movements, inspired by Marx, Lenin and Mao continue to wage large scale armed struggle in India and the Philippines.
The banned Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) has gained support over the past decade for its campaign against the country’s government, which continues to abuse minority groups and other marginalised sectors of the population.
Nepal’s Maoist Communist Party engaged in a 10 year long armed struggle which culminated in the 2006 mass uprising against King Gyanendra, who had dissolved Parliament and seized absolute power the previous year.
Despite a recent split in the Unified Communist Party of Nepal, Marxist-Leninism and Maoism remain significant political ideologies in the country.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Marxist-Leninism as a relic of the past, especially in countries where the poor have been denied the opportunity of social and economic advancement and the authorities have responded to reasonable calls for reforms with violent repression.
Cameron Walker is a law/arts student at the University of Auckland and a member of Auckland Philippines Solidarity. He recently took part in an exposure programme with the Philippines’ human rights and trade union movement.