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Relevance of Philippine Communist Movement Questioned - 2004-03-17

The Philippine communist movement has waged one of the world's longest running left wing insurgencies. But questions about its continued relevance are being raised ahead of peace talks with the government expected later this month.

The armed wing of the Philippine communist movement, known as the New People's Army, or NPA, emerged in the 1960s recruiting former Huk guerillas who had fought for land reform and resisted Japanese forces during the World War II.

The NPA reached its zenith in the mid-1980's during the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos. The group had more than 20,000 fighters under arms, but has declined since, hurt by bloody internal purges and the demise of communist regimes throughout much of the world.

The Philippine military now estimates NPA membership at about nine-thousand, with rebels spread across the country from rice terraces in the north to the jungles of the southern island of Mindanao.

National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales says the communist movement, frustrated by crumbling popular support, has descended into banditry, using extortion, intimidation and assassination of local politicians in a bid to undermine the country's fragile democracy.

"I don't think the communists are able to mobilize our people in the manner that they used to. They really want to destabilize this country because they are using destabilization for election purposes," says Mr. Gonzales. "This is my biggest worry now, that destabilization as a tool is now being used in our electoral arena."

Former leftist rebel Satur Ocampo says the communist movement remains strong, fueled by conditions of poverty and injustice that governments since the fall of Marcos have failed to eradicate. "It continues to have the support of a significant number of the population, that speaks from my point of view of the failure of government to address the issue of poverty, of injustice, of government neglect and abuses," he says.

Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero agrees that the NPA remains a potent security threat, which cannot be defeated by force alone. "We feel that we cannot solve this problem through guns and bullets alone. We cannot kill all the communists, we cannot kill all the NPA's," says Mr. Lucero. "We feel that aside from military pressure we should also initiate talks and hopefully we can resolve these things by not shooting each other."

Peace efforts, however, have made little headway since talks resumed in February after a more than two a half-year break. The communists are unhappy about their inclusion on a U.S. list of terrorist groups and the government continues to accuse them of extortion and political assassinations.

Government negotiator Maria Clara agrees many hurdles remain but the administration of President Gloria Arroyo is not giving up hope of forging a peace pact. "For as long as both sides are willing to talk, should there be problems either on the ground or across the negotiating table, the government will keep its door open of course for the talks in the interests of the peace process," she says.

The talk goes on, but analysts say the poverty and corruption in poor rural communities that drives many Filipinos into the arms of the NPA, has to be addressed if the rebellion is to ever end.