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  • Writer's pictureRobbie Sutton

Protracted People’s Warfare: Enduring Insurgency in the Philippines

The modern Philippine state was born in 1946, after it became independent from the United States, under which it had existed as a colonial territory since the early 1900s. Throughout this history, the archipelagic nation has experienced sharp social and geographic divisions, with ethnic and class conflicts amongst its peoples giving rise to unrest, insurgency and at times revolution. Quelling these rebellious actors has been a consistent objective of, and challenge for, the Philippine state.

Philippine troops battling insurgents in Zamboanga city in 2013. Credit: Associated Press.

This article aims to examine the modern cases of insurgency in the Philippines from a historical stance, contrasted with the counter-insurgency activities of the state, in light of the recent 2022 Presidential elections and whether or not these approaches may change. Even now, the notion of a fully united Philippine nation is in some circles a controversial one, with ongoing independence movements in the southern part of the country amongst sections of the Bangsamoro peoples. The political-economic character of the state not gone uncontested, as ongoing and historical Communist insurgencies show, and these conflicts have endured even since the shift to a more liberal democratic state in 1986, itself the product of the “People Power Revolution”.

Class Warfare

Within the history of the modern Republic of the Philippines, there are two distinct insurgent political traditions, the peasant class revolutionaries and the Moro nationalists. Of the former, there are two distinct movements/stages, the Hukbalahap insurgency from 1946-55 and the CPP-New People’s Army from 1968 to the current day.

The “Huks” emerged initially as an armed resistance to the Japanese occupation during the Second World War but their ties to the pre-war Communist-linked national peasant movement led to a fraught relationship with the Philippine Government. Following the war, these tensions would re-emerge, aided by the highly conservative and hard-nosed stance adopted by the US towards a movement seen as socially disruptive and anti-government.

Benedict Kerkvliet, in his book, The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines, describes how the existence of an organised, militant, peasant socialist movement was seen as a direct threat by both American authorities and Filipino political elites, and the Hukbalahap would endure suspicion, arbitrary arrest and even murder at their hands.

When the newly independent Philippine Government denied Huk-linked elected politicians their seats and began to attack the group, Huk cadres swiftly reformed in the mountains and commenced fighting. The resultant nine-year war would ultimately be resolved in no small part through reforms offered by the state, including promising homesteads to fighters, undercutting the rebellions objectives of agrarian reconstruction.

"Even now, the notion of a fully united Philippine nation is in some circles a controversial one..."

By the 1960s, the Communist movement had regrouped somewhat, and a new generation of activists, led by Jose Maria Sison, split from the existing Parti Kommunista Philipina in 1968, founding the Communist Party of the Philippines. Re-committing to revolutionary armed struggle, they established the New People’s Army (Bagong Hukbong Bayan) 1969 and commenced a still-ongoing guerrilla campaign. The seizure of dictatorial power by Ferdinand Marcos and his repression of the Philippine left more broadly gave considerable impetus to the NPA, and recruitment would eventually rise to an estimated 25,000 fighters at their height in 1987.

The main political-theoretical basis of the movement was “Philippine Society and Revolution, published by Sison under the pen name Amado Guerrero in 1970. In it, Sison reviewed Philippine history and political-economic society through a Marxist and ‘Maoist’ framework, concluding that the Philippines remained (despite nominal political independence) a “semi-colonial and semi-feudal” country, controlled through a ’bureaucratic capitalist’ class which “plays the special role of linking up the interest of the foreign and domestic exploiters. Alongside the traditional landowning class, the American occupation and hegemonic period had seen the emergence of a “Comprador” Bourgeoise, those who profited the greatest from the interactions with principally the American economic actors and who dominated the fitfully emerging industry of the nation.

For the CCP, these factions were fundamentally intertwined with American imperialism and capitalism, and the “National-Democratic Revolution” was the means by which this system, which held back and exploited the Philippine people, would be overthrown. To this end, the NPA utilises a strategy of ‘Protracted People’s War’, which prioritises decentralised, long-term endurance over tactical battlefield victories, as well as the complementary use of activist organisations (in this case the ‘National Democratic Front’) to facilitate wider political engagement and if necessary negotiations.

Members of the New People's Army communist rebels with face painted to conceal their identities southeast of Manila in 2016.
Members of the New People's Army communist rebels with face painted to conceal their identities southeast of Manila in 2016. Credit: AP/Aaron Favila

The Governments response to the insurgency has varied considerably across time and administrations. The Dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos notably favoured military action (to the effective exclusion of other mechanisms), while the successive liberal democratic governments have been more willing to embrace “non-kinetic” socio-economic reforms and policies as a means to counter the insurgencies (not only the NPA). This has resulted in shifting periods of negotiation and of aggressive confrontation, with as many as 40 separate occasions of the former, all of which ultimately gave way back to violence.

This back-and-forth dynamic can be seen especially under the Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has an interesting relationship with the CPP, having in his youth been a student associated with Jose Sison, and there is evidence compiled by historian Dr. Joseph Scalice that Sison and the CPP viewed Duterte’s rise to the Presidency as a favourable development, even lending support to his election campaign, though they now deny this.

Although the Duterte government would seek initially to negotiate an end to the conflict, talks broke down in 2017. Duterte shifted in towards a stance to totally defeating the insurgency, undertaking the foundation of the “National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)”. The NTF-ENLAC was the vehicle for a ‘whole of nation’ approach, overseeing localised peace negotiations, rehabilitation and reconciliations of surrendered NPA fighters, as well as a program of public investment intended to remove the motivations for joining the guerrillas; in their own words, “to attain an inclusive and sustainable peace”. This represents a major effort to address what Watts et al, in Countering Others Insurgencies, refer to as “… a lack of policy coherence”, whereby the military and civil services frequently worked at cross purposes to each other, muddling prior attempts to address the conflicts.

"This represents a major effort to address what Watts et al refer to as “… a lack of policy coherence”, whereby the military and civil services frequently worked at cross purposes to each other, muddling prior attempts to address the conflicts."

Furthermore, the government declared a permanent end to any peace process in 2019, as well as declaring the entire movement as terrorist organisations. By February 2021, the NTF-ELCAC and the Philippine Armed Forces claimed that the NPA was beginning to surrender en masse, though the cited numbers are considered less than reliable, given they exceed all prior estimates for the total size of the NPA. Jack Broome, writing for The Diplomat, argues that the government is incentivised to present an overly-rosy view of the conflicts progression because Duterte made ending it a pillar of his original election campaign.

Despite these efforts, the guerrilla campaign waged by the NPA endures to this day. Although the heyday of the insurgency has long passed, as of late 2021, a persistent cadre of 3,500 revolutionaries remain active, according to the Philippine Armed Forces. The NPA remains able to recruit members due to the ongoing structural economic inequalities in Philippine society, and given that the NTF-ELCAC’s goals are reportedly a long way from completion, it seems that the insurgency is likely to persist into the medium term.

National Liberation

The other major insurgent force in the Philippines is the nationalist movement associated amongst the Moro people. The Moro are the Muslim population of the Philippines, and were in an increasingly awkward position following their incorporation into a steadily Christianised, unitary archipelago. The name ‘Moro’ itself originates as a Spanish pejorative which later came to be re-appropriated within the term “Bangsamoro” or Moro Nation.

Joseph Franco, writing for the National Defence University, identifies the root causes as stemming from systemic losses to land rights of Muslim communities since the incorporation of the Sulu Sultanate into the Spanish Philippines, a policy consistently reinforced under both the Commonwealth and Republic. The sponsored settlement of generally Christian former Huk fighters from Luzon on Mindanao during the 50s and 60s was often at the direct expense of Muslims, and generated significant inter-ethnic/sectarian strife and militia warfare.

Nur Misuari, an ethnic Tausug professor, founded the ‘Moro National Liberation Front’ in 1972 and began a rebellion against the Philippine government, which in its first phase lasted until the 1976 Tripoli Peace Agreement. Like the war between the Government and the NPA, the Mindanao Conflict has seen several cycles of violence and negotiation. Continual problems with the implementation of the 1976 agreement resulted in the conflict dragging out until a further 1996 Accord, which formally established the “Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao”, with Misuari as Chairman. Even then, Misuari and his followers weren’t done, launching small-scale uprisings in 2001 and 2013.

The Philippines, with the island of Mindanao and its surrounding islands highlighted in red.

Further complicating the political situation was the fragmentation of the MNLF. While Misuari and the MNLF espoused a more-or-less secular nationalist platform, Islam was always central to Moro identity and by 1986 a faction oriented towards a more explicitly Islamic objective had emerged, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF was able to mobilise via connections to mosques, as well as picking up former MNLF fighters who were dissatisfied with the 1996 Agreement, effectively eclipsing its parent organisation.

Thousands of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members, who signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996, display their weapons during a rally on the volatile island of Jolo in southern Philippines in 2013.
Thousands of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members, who signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996, display their weapons during a rally on the volatile island of Jolo in southern Philippines in 2013. Credit: AP/Nickee Butlangan

An additional factor in the split may have been to do with inter-ethnic politics, between Tausug’s (supporting Misuari) and Maguidanao’s (supporting the MILF). Although originally representing a more hardline, radical position than the MNLF, the MILF ultimately did itself begin to negotiate with the government following the death of its original leader Salamat Hashim in 2003. These negotiations and the resultant peace process had by 2019 given birth to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, superseding the original 1996 autonomy agreement.

National Liberation

Additionally, emerging from the same ‘Muslim separatist’ struggle as the MNLF and MILF have been a smattering of significantly more extreme forces, part of the broader Salafi jihadist current. These groups aren’t mass movements, but are small, largely independent cells led by individual emirs such as Abdurajak Janjalani, Isnilon Hapilon, or the infamous Maute brothers. Despite this formal disorganisation, they are quite capable of cooperation, as the infamous 2017 uprising in Marawi by a coalition of jihadist fighters showed.

The most prominent of these formations are Abu Sayyaf, the Maute Group, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Abu Sayyaf: Originally founded and firmly led by Abdurajak Janjalani in 1991 as a Wahhabist organisation, they have splintered into functionally separate and varyingly ideological cells since his death in 1998. The most important being those led by Radulan Sahiron (based on the island of Sulu), and Isnilon Hapilon (leading the Baslian faction). Operationally, at least since Janjalani’s death, Abu Sayyaf has typically focused on more-or-less ‘criminal’ activity, engaging in kidnapping for ransom (often targeting westerners) as well as drug running, extortion and bombing attacks.

Maute Group: Founded by and named for the brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, this group owes its origins to local clan politics and feuding as much as anything else, elements of the Maute family supposedly embracing the image of IS membership as an intimidation tactic. From a wealthy and religious family from the city of Butig, with connections to the MILF, the brothers recruited mainly through clan and gang connections, while also leveraging Islamist philosophy. They joined with Hapilon’s faction of Abu Sayyaf in allegiance to Islamic State, leading the seizure of Marawi.

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: Originating in 2010 as a splinter faction of the MILF and led by Usdatz Ameril Umbra Kato, who rejected the move by MILF towards a negotiated settlement with the Government. Likely the most militant and heavily armed of the three main jihadist formations, drawing their original arsenal from the MILF stock upon their defection. Since then, they have continued to clash with both the MILF and the Armed Forces, and indirectly supported the Marawi attack, with some sections openly pledging themselves to IS.

Although the attempt to seize Marawi failed, with near total losses for the committed jihadists, these groups have persisted, scattering into the most rural areas and myriad offshore islands.

"These groups aren’t mass movements, but are small, largely independent cells led by individual emirs such as Abdurajak Janjalani, Isnilon Hapilon, or the infamous Maute brothers."

In the various confrontations between the Philippine Government and opposing revolutionary and insurgent forces, a clear pattern which emerges is that of resolution via some form of compromise and accommodation. Even as far back as the 1899-1902 war of resistance waged against America in the wake of the Spanish-American War, political reform played a key role in allowing insurgents to accept an at least revised status quo. In this case, though the at times brutal American counter-insurgency operations had achieved an effective battlefield victory, true success only came with the diplomatic recuperation of the rebellious forces into a stable order.

An image claiming to show armed Wagnre mercenaries at a fomer French military base in Gossi, Mali.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivers a campaign speech in Cavite. Credit: Avito Dalan

With military avenues for Independence closed to them, the emergent Filipino national political and economic elites were willing to accept continued foreign control, backed by secured guarantees of future independence and the linking of their economic interests with America’s. The establishment of an autonomous region within Mindanao equally fits this mould, with local factional elites having their interests accommodated and enshrined within the state apparatus. This is not to say that the military counter-insurgency operations are irrelevant, clearly the first instinct of the Philippine state (or indeed any government in that position) was to achieve a battlefield defeat of any rebels, but if that proves too difficult, then the diplomatic route becomes much more attractive.

A negotiated approach however, is only possible when the conflicting interests at play can be effectively reconciled, which brings us back to the NPA. Fundamentally, its quite difficult to see how the revolutionary communist program of the NPA-CPP could be reconciled with the Philippine ruling class’s interests in such a way as to bring about an end to this war. For their part, the NPA has shown little inclination to fully accept any of the Government’s proposals either.

Much like with the Hukbalahap revolt, the government will likely to continue to pursue efforts to draw away or discourage potential recruits through social programs and reforms, while maintaining military pressure. During the recent Presidential campaign, Ferdinand Marcos Jr expressed his support for the NTF-ELCAC, and so a major shift in strategy seems unlikely. Likewise, the remaining jihadist cells represent an equally ‘unreconcilable’ force. Given their overall small numbers, and the cooperation of ‘mainstream’ Moro militia, the government will probably continue to rely on ‘kinetic’ counter-terror tactics.


Written by Robbie Sutton.

Edited by Wade McCagh.


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