Desperate to end a communist insurgency that has roiled the Philippines for nearly five decades, President Rodrigo Duterte is seeking court action to legally render the rebels as terrorists, a move that would endanger the lives of hundreds of above-ground activists and sympathizers.

In December, Duterte issued Proclamation 374 to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), as full-blown terrorist organizations.

The executive move came weeks after Duterte officially terminated peace talks with the communist guerillas, who he accused of insincerity for attacking state forces while talks were ongoing. Last month, he threatened to kill five NPA leaders for every government solider fatality.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) recently filed at a Manila court a follow-up 55-page petition seeking to have the CPP and NPA legally declared as terrorist organizations.

The petition also seeks to tag over 600 individuals across the country and abroad, many identified only by aliases, as terrorists. The United States and European Union have both designated the NPA as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

The CPP/NPA’s armed struggle, which it refers to as a “protracted people’s war”, is the longest running communist insurgency in Asia. It has taken an estimated 40,000 lives, most during the tenure of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

But the rebellion still represents a potent threat across various areas of the island nation. In early 2017, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana estimated the NPA had around 5,000 members.

Old People's War for New People's Army:  the truce is off and armed conflict may begin again in earnest. Photo: AFP
New People’s Army fighters in a rebel camp. Photo: AFP

Jose Maria Sison, the CPP’s founding chair, and several top communist leaders are now on the DoJ’s terrorist list. Sison formed the CPP on December 26, 1968; the NPA was organized months later and will turn 49 on March 29.

United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, former Bayan Muna party list Representative Satur Ocampo and several priests were among those on the DoJ’s lists of terrorists.

Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipina known for advocating for the rights of indigenous people in the Philippines, described her inclusion as “baseless, malicious and irresponsible.”

Under the Republic Act 9372 or the Human Security Act of 2007, clearance must first be obtained from the court before an organization or individuals may be designated as terrorists.

The DoJ’s petition justified its action by stating that communist rebels aimed “to overthrow the duly constituted authorities and to seize control of the Philippine government through armed struggle.”

Duterte, who symbolically appointed known leftists in his cabinet at the start of his tenure in June 2016 and released 19 rebel leaders from jail upon renewing peace talks two month later, has now vowed to go after various left-leaning groups he apparently sees as fronts for the CPP/NPA.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a military uniform, gestures as he delivers a speech on November 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a military uniform, gestures as he delivers a speech on November 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) researcher in the Philippines, said the Philippine government’s bid to label more than 600 people as terrorists put them at grave risk. “The Justice Department petition is a virtual government hit list,” he said.

According to Conde, there is already a long history of state security forces and pro-government militias assassinating people labeled as NPA members or supporters.

That includes in Duterte’s hometown of Davao in the 1980s, where a vigilante group known as Alsa Masa (Rise of the Masses) assassinated communist guerillas and their supporters in a village known as “Nicaragdao”, a local language play on the violence Nicaragua suffered in that period.

Duterte, who is now under scrutiny by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for his bloody war on drugs campaign, last month ordered state forces to shoot female NPA rebels in their vaginas, outraging feminists who decried the remark as misogynistic.

Duterte has also offered indigenous people a reward of US$500 for every NPA rebel they kill in parallel with the military’s efforts to defeat the guerillas.

More than half of the NPA’s estimated 5,000 fighters are based in Mindanao, where human rights-curbing martial law is in effect until the end of 2018.

In this photo taken on December 26, 2014, members of the communists' armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), walk past a hammer and sickle flag displayed in a village as they mark the 46th anniversary of its founding, on the southern island of Mindanao. The Philippine government and communist rebels said on December 26 that formal negotiations to end a lengthy insurgency could restart shortly, though the rebels' armed wing announced it was beefing up its guerilla campaign.   AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO / STR
New People’s Army (NPA) members at a camp on the southern island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Stringer 

Oddly, Duterte was previously well-liked by many communist guerillas, especially in Mindanao, making him the envy of local government officials who couldn’t easily go to rebel-infested areas in the southern Philippines.

As mayor of Davao City for more than two decades, Duterte was often called upon by communist rebels to broker the release of captured soldiers or police officers they held as prisoners of war. Duterte was also previously close to CPP founder Sison, who was the president’s former teacher but has long lived in exile in the Netherlands.

Early in 2017, the Philippine government even asked the US to declassify the CPP/NPA as a foreign terrorist organization so that Sison could meet with Duterte in a neutral Asian country. The US classified the CPP/NPA as an FTO in 2002 upon the request of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Hundreds of alleged NPA rebels and their supporters have met and dined with Duterte in Malacanang on three separate occasions so far. The communist leadership, however, has described most of those as “fake” guerrillas, and have vowed to leverage Duterte’s anti-poor policies and human rights abuses to their advantage.

By mid-2017, Duterte and Sison had become bitter rivals, exchanging scathing insults in public. Sison claimed Duterte has a “sick mind” and is the country’s “top drug addict”, referring to the president’s confession that he uses Fentanyl, a prescription drug for chronic severe pain.

Chief of the National Democratic Front of Philippines (NDFP) Jose Maria Sison answers journalists' questions during the opening ceremony of the formal peace talks between the Philippine government and the (NDFP) in Rome on 19 January 2017.  The Philippines expressed hope of securing a permanent ceasefire deal with communist rebels waging one of Asia's longest insurgencies, as peace talks resumed in Italy. / AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI
Jose Maria Sison answers questions at the opening ceremony of formal peace talks between the Philippine government and CPP/NPA in Rome on January 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tiziana Fabi

Duterte retorted that Sison was dying of illness and vowed to slap him if they ever face each other. Sison has asserted the DoJ petition labeling him and the CPP/NPA as terrorists has “no basis.”

“Duterte is engaged in a wild anti-communist witch hunt under the guise of anti-terrorism,” Sison said, accusing his former student of scheming to silence progressives by tagging them as terrorists. “Duterte is truly the No 1 terrorist in the Philippines,” Sison said of Duterte’s zeal for suppressing dissent.

Leftist leader Satur Ocampo, a consultant to the rebels’ peace negotiating panel, described the DoJ’s recent petition for the court to declare the CPP/NPA and over 600 individuals as terrorists as Duterte’s “worst move.”

Ocampo, who has vowed to contest his inclusion on the terror list, stressed that Duterte appears to be totally shutting the doors for peace negotiations by formally seeking in court the branding of the CPP/NPA as a terrorist organization.

“When he simply cancelled the talks, he left an opening. Subsequently, there were back-channel discussions on the resumption of talks. But in this last move, there are indications, there seem to be no more opening for a resumption,” Ocampo told ABS-CBN News Channel.