KUALA LUMPUR: Security forces fighting pro-Islamic State (IS) militant groups in the troubled Mindanao island now have another battle on their hands, with the resurgence of the New People’s Army (NPA) - the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Analysts have warned that the NPA is expanding its influence as abject poverty and military operations which displaced large numbers of civilians are pushing them into the arms of the communist insurgents.
The group's resurgence comes at a time when pro-Islamic State militants are deepening their presence on Mindanao, increasing the security threat in southern Philippines.
“Radicalisation due to forced evacuation of many people, especially indigenous peoples, is an important driving force in recruitment into the NPA,” said Francisco Lara, senior peace and conflict adviser of International Alert, an independent peace building organisation.
The CPP was formed in 1968 and its armed wing, the NPA, was set up a year later.
According to Luke Lischin, a terrorism researcher and academic assistant at the National War College of Washington DC, all the factors that drove people to join CPP and NPA five decades ago are still present today.
“Many of the historical drivers of NPA recruitment remain in place today - widespread poverty and income disparity, land exploitation, labour exploitation, human rights abuses, political marginalisation and discrimination in the rural hinterland, etc,” he said.
“Moreover, (President Rodrigo) Duterte has called for the bombing of indigenous peoples (who are supposedly supporting rebels) and carried out mass arrests of CPP party members.”
The destruction wrought by counterinsurgency campaigns in Mindanao has led to a massive displacement of civilians, whose woes are compounded by a rice shortage crisis.
MORE ATTACKS BY NPA IN 2017
Lischin pointed out that the number of NPA attacks spiked from 60 in 2016 to 260 in 2017, with the group killing or wounding 281 people last year.
He warned that the NPA, which is believed to have about 3,700 members, could pose a bigger threat than IS.
“IS in the Philippines is very loosely organised and fractious, limiting their ability to organise; for a period of time the (pro-IS) Maute brothers and Isnilon Hapilon served as capable leaders able to unite disparate groups, but now these groups lack such leaders,” said Lischin.
Abdullah and Omar Maute led a radical group composed of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas and foreign fighters while Hapilon was a former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group. In May 2017, they led pro-IS militants in a five-month siege of Marawi city before all three were killed, along with more than 1,000 people.
Lischin considers the NPA to be much more organised, with stronger military leadership and better developed social and political infrastructure compared to IS. The NPA has also existed for decades and has a national presence beyond Mindanao.
“The security threat posed by IS remains real, despite the victory of government forces in Marawi, but it is eclipsed by the communist insurgency due to the reach and scope of their operations,” said Lara of International Alert.