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Philippine Communist Rebels Grow New Aid Sources as China Steps Away

Delegates from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) stand in line as they arrive at the Great Hall of the People to attend a session of National People's Congress in Beijing, March 4, 2016.

A beleaguered group of Mao Zedong-inspired rebels in the Philippines is tapping funds from overseas and recruits from among ideological sympathizers at home to help battle the government for the next 50 years as former benefactor communist China backs away.

The Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPC-NPA) is recruiting ideologically aligned members at Philippine universities and in poor parts of the archipelago, analysts believe.

The European Union has been accused of sending money through nonprofits to the New People’s Army. Some Catholic priests are helping, too, scholars say. This support gives the group more resources to resist the government, which stepped up its fight in 2017.

China once helped arm the rebels but had stopped by 2011.

“This is not just the weapons from China, there’s not really much relevance at this stage,” said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association.

“What’s relevant is that they find it much easier to recruit people because they have a platform that allows them to support a lot of causes, LGBT and all these things,” he said. “It is spread all over the country. Whenever there is poverty, there is a rural environment, they go there and recruit.”

Survival sources

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has stepped up its fight against the New People’s Army – the armed side of the rebel organization – since he declared an end to negotiations in 2017. His spokesman said the rebels used violence during earlier talks, while the rebel group’s founder criticized Duterte’s use of martial law in the restive Philippine southland.

Fighting such as ambushes on soldiers has killed a total of some 30,000 people.

Before the negotiations began, the New People’s Army, founded in 1968, had dwindled to about 4,000 combatants, down from a peak of some 17,000, according to domestic media reports. The affiliated communist party claims about 70,000 members.

Now the group is getting somewhere in its newest push for money and people.

The insurgency traditionally draws support in rural areas where their ideology appeals to poor people facing a perceived “social inequality” such as a lack of land reform, said Carl Baker, director of programs with the think tank Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. About one-fifth of Filipinos live in poverty.

Today the group continues to get support, such as safe operations bases, from poor populations. It’s also recruiting ideologues at Philippine universities, Cau said. In 2005 the group widened left-liberal appeal by recognizing same-sex relationships.

Drawing on the country’s Catholic majority, the rebels have also won “field support” as well as help in “armed struggle” over the decades from priests and nuns, author Jeffrey Riedinger says in his 1995 book Agrarian Reform in the Philippines.

Some group funding, officials believe, comes from overseas. Last month a government delegation asked the EU and Belgium to stop financing groups that it said were funding New People’s Army violence. The EU said March 30 following an audit that it had found no linkage.

The Philippine government and the rebels both say they’re ready to fight 50 more years. But the government is also trying to calm the communist front through peace talks at local levels, said Herman Kraft, political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

China grows cold

The rebels say former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong inspired their movement. In the 1970s, China had met rebel requests for arms including about 1,200 M-14 rifles, bazookas, mortars and communication equipment, Philippine news website ABS-CBN reports.

But the Chinese government cut aid to the rebel group in 1970s under a deal with the government of Philippine ex-president Ferdinand Marcos. China’s Communist Party severed its own ties in 2011.

“I don’t think they’re actually receiving any assistance from China right now,” Kraft said. “China is still betting on the idea of maintaining good relations with the Philippines. Unless relations really take a nosedive, then I don’t think that China would actually risk (those ties) if they were to actually provide assistance to the CPC-NPA.”

In late 2016, Duterte reached out to China after four years of tension over maritime sovereignty.

China reached back with aid including 3,000 Chinese-made assault and sniper rifles that could be used in battles against rebel groups.“By selling those small arms to the Philippine military, it’s not directed at the NPA but of course the Philippine military could use those Chinese arms in fighting the NPA” among other rebel groups, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.