Reckless and Heartless

Hostility to human rights betrays NTF-ELCAC core mission

THE COLLAPSE of the peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) in 2017 left President Duterte with nothing to show for it.. He thought the negotiations would result in the surrender of the Left, and when that didn’t happen,he terminated the talks.

On December 5, 2017, the president issued Proclamation No. 374 which labelled the NPA as a “communist terrorist group (CTG).” Declaring “all-out-war” against the above groups, Duterte engaged CPP leader Jose Maria Sison in a word war, exchanging insults and expletives, ending each one with a threat to wipe out the communist rebellion, and ordering state forces to kill insurgents on sight. 

According to military reports, the NPA strength has been at its lowest in recent history, estimated currently at 3,500 combatants. The estimate has not changed since 2016. Looking back at the data, the peak of NPA strength was in the 1980s at 25,000. Their number decreased to 11,900 in 2002 and to 7,000 in 2007.

In December 2018, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70 (EO 70) which when read in detail hints at a change of mood, even heart. The EO institutionalizes a “whole of nation” approach in attaining inclusive and sustainable peace with Communist rebels; viewing the insurgency as a social problem rather than purely a military and security concern. Its mandate plans to win back communities supposedly under the influence of the CPP-NPA-NDF and help conflict-affected areas by responding to their basic and social needs. The same order created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to facilitate its implementation. 

While the military continues operations against rebel forces, the NTF-ELCAC is directed to build strategies addressing groups which supposedly serve as support systems for communist forces and in one way or another help spread communist ideology.

NTF-ELCAC is composed of 23 members with President Duterte sitting as chair and Hermogenes Esperon, national security adviser, as vice chair. Twenty members are secretaries of  different government agencies and two are from the private sector.

The task force mobilizes the entire bureaucracy creating counterpart frontlines to communist organizations in the regions, municipalities, and barangays. 

Wholesome programs, dangerous campaigns

Based on the implementing guidelines for LGUs released by the DILG in August 2019, the whole of nation approach shall incorporate 12 clusters of efforts addressing issues comprehensively from the ground but joined with international outreach activities; using laws, communication and building infrastructure as needed. Most important, these undertake programs for livelihood and poverty alleviation.

The task force is directed to undertake localized peace talks, deploy development and livelihood projects and give cash assistance to rebel returnees. 

Website posts include stories of programs that have assisted communities affected by conflict. The Barangay Development Program, for instance, has approved over 1,500 projects that are ready to be deployed. These projects can be monitored through an online map also available in their site. The EO seems designed to address the needs of the communities, incorporating peace and development and basic needs. 

These have gained little public attention as a more aggressive front seems to have overtaken all other objectives. Implementing accelerated and unrelenting battlefield operations; the task force also targets perceived and known communist supporters and sympathizers through a massive propaganda war, including red tagging along with legal offensives here and abroad.

Much of the static and optics rising from task force activities have to do more with the strategies and campaigns that are fraught with the possibility of inflicting more harm, including abuse of human rights, specifically, political and civil rights. 

This would be in line with the shock-and-awe tactic employed by Duterte, with the purpose of instilling fear in everyone. Such an orientation betrays what is at the  heart of the NTF-ELCAC. Not surprisingly, it confirms what the president himself has claimed — he does not care about human rights and will not let these concerns get in the way of operations conducted by law enforcement agencies. 

Until today, the president continues to berate and threaten to kill communist rebels in his addresses. His aggressive bark creates more teeth for the task force’s campaign.

Propaganda warfare

The bulk of task force ELCAC’s strategy is highly focused on countering national and international propaganda efforts of the CPP-NPA-NDF. The team publicizes its charges to provoke fear and demonstrate their power against individuals and organizations they accuse of having ties with communist rebels. 

But these efforts have been marred with carelessness, operating on an excess of zeal in going after targets. Since 2018 they have called out some left-leaning organizations as above-ground fronts of communist guerrillas. The indiscriminate use of public red tagging linked well-known individuals and organizations to the CPP-NPA-NDF, including celebrities, church groups, civil society organizations, activists and journalists. 

Government news platforms serve as information outlets for this agenda. But a high volume of the massive campaign is done on the social media pages of NTF-ELCAC (with 121k followers on Facebook, 1,986 on Twitter), its members and networks. Huge numbers of trolls and online supporters of the group magnify the spirit of animosity, bashing and threatening those red-tagged by the task force. 

Employing the euphemism “truth tagging” to soften the campaign, the publicity continues to be dangerous for those targeted, as unfounded charges place individuals and groups in harm’s way. 

CMFR previously noted in a special report on red tagging that the association with communism makes someone vulnerable to attacks not only from the police and the military but also from anti-communist vigilante groups, and paramilitaries. 

Several of those red-tagged had been arrested by the police and were subjected to trumped up charges. In other cases, red-tagged subjects became victims of violence, with some killed. 

Human rights advocates have criticized the actions of the anti-communist task force.

Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., one of the NTF-ELCAC spokespersons, confirmed that the red tagging and the aggressive response to cases involving suspected communist sympathizers are part of a “propaganda warfare.” 

Parlade said “that the bigger part of the effort was to destroy, and not just to counter, its (CPP-NPA-NDF) propaganda machinery.”

Lacking basis and faulty intelligence 

The propaganda warfare can work only if Parlade and company can make their charges stick. So far, their haste to arrest using trumped up charges has boomeranged with courts throwing out cases for lack of evidence. 

The case of Lady Ann Salem, editor of a small publication, Manila Today, is an example. Her organization was red tagged before she was arrested in a condominium on December 10, 2020. She was arrested with trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago. Both were charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. A Mandaluyong court junked their case on February 5 but they were only released on March 5. 

The Provincial Prosecutor’s Office in Davao del Sur dismissed the case against Lumad schoolteacher Chad Booc and six others, who were arrested in an inter-agency “rescue operation” inside the University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu. They were charged with the kidnapping of Lumad children whom the police said were being trained to be communist rebels. USC and church officials said that the students were sheltered by the archdiocese of Cebu as part of a bakwit (evacuee) school program. They were released on May 14.  However, on May 19, the NTF-ELCAC announced it would file new charges against the group.

Reckless and Dangerous

Task force ELCAC has been using aggressive strategies in the name of peace, security and counterinsurgency. But this cannot justify the possible harm it can cause to those wrongfully accused. 

Casting a wide net to catch big fish is not the best of tactics in fighting a war like NTF-ELCAC’s. Its recklessness shows an uncaring and heartless approach to what the government acknowledges as a social problem, as the EO that created the group states as well. 

Addressing insurgency at all levels has been described as a battle for hearts and minds. Military strategy should hold back from “scorched earth” warfare in which losses  far outweigh  gains. Similarly, in the war of words, government must cast off its typical MO which agents of the law use to make people afraid. Fear also takes away trust and good will. 

Perhaps, government needs to shift gears if it genuinely seeks peace in the areas where communists have gained ground. And the clusters designated by the EO show up various approaches which should have been used in the first place – because it is what government owes the people leaders are sworn to serve. 

So far, baseless allegations, the resort to rabid online trolling, intimidation, planting illegal weapons, false arrests and yes, EJKs – all suggest the deep conflict in the heart of the Duterte’s war for peace. And the NTF-ELCAC has already done its mission harm – and caused a disservice to the communities government wants to win back.