MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte appears ready to take a crucial turn in his love-hate relationship with the Left, signalling Saturday night he will place the New People’s Army in the same category that the United States has placed it – as “terrorists” – and warning activists he will find a way to expose their alleged unholy alliance with armed rebels. The threat drew angry reactions from an activist group Sunday.
Speaking to reporters in Davao City, Duterte said he would henceforth also have government lawyers file, not charges of rebellion but ordinary criminal offenses like murder and arson against arrested communust rebels. He said he was fed up with the series of NPA attacks on businesses in the countryside, especially the torching of their equipment and facilities.
He blamed the attacks on the businesses and revolutionary taxes for driving out investors and jacking up prices of goods produced by the businesses that remain.
The threat of launching a crackdown against legal progressive groups affiliated with the main leftwing alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or Bayan was assailed by one of the alliance’s members, Anakbayan.
The youth group said in a statement Sunday morning that it was not hard to see why Duterte would want to do this. “Progressive groups have been at the forefront of opposing Duterte’s war on drugs, all-out counterinsurgency ops, and martial law in Mindanao that trample on human rights as well as his perpetuation of anti-people neoliberal policies. Duterte’s threats will not intimidate us into submission,” said Anakbayan chairman Vencer Crisostomo.
In a talk with reporters Saturday night, Duterte said of the NPA, armed wing of the National Democratic Front (NDF) with which his government had pursued peace talks in a bid to end a four-decade insurgency: “Before, we recognized them as legitimate rebels. But with their continued depredations, killing innocent people even an infant four months old, I’ll be issuing a proclamation. I will remove them from the category of a legal entity . . . placing them – same as America – [in the category of] terrorists.”
Duterte was alluding to the killing of an infant who was among eight civilians in a Toyota Fortuner caught in the crossfire when NPA rebels ambushed a police vehicle in Bukidnon last week.
The NPA local command admitted killing the infant, apologized to civilians and offered to recompense them.
The incident, however, angered Duterte, who learned about it in between his ASEAN hosting duties. He said Saturday he was just allowing the soldiers to rest, after a harrowing five months of fierce engagement with the homegrown, but ISIS-inspired Maute Group that laid siege to Marawi City.
“Pinagpapahinga ko lang mga sundalo ko [I’m just allowing the soldiers to rest]. But we will also go on the offensive,” Duterte said.
No more ‘rebellion’: criminal charges to be filed
He said it was also time to change the government’s legal tack against the rebels. “So beginning from now, wala nang [there’ll be no more charges called] rebellion-rebellion. We will fight terrorism, murder, arson na…. because we will consider them criminal already.”
He said the government “may take steps” against activists, sounding stung by the tags of “fascist” and “imperialist dog” that the various protest groups had hurled at him during rallies while the country was hosting the 31st ASEAN and Related Summits and he met with world leaders including President Donald Trump of the United States, one of nine country dialogue partners that joined the ASEAN events in Manila.
At the start of his presidency in June 2016, Duterte had fast-tracked peace negotiations with the NDF-CPP, occasionally referring to himself as “socialist” and “leftist” and citing his ties with some leaders like CPP founding chairman Prof. Jose Maria Sison, based in The Netherlands. Negotiations have since been suspended, though he recently said he wold not block an announced plan by his daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, to reach out to local rebels in her area.
Duterte had also named several leftists to the Cabinet, but at least two of them – Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and Social Welfare and Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo – have since been rejected by the bicameral Commission on Appointments dominated by his congressional allies.
On Saturday, he said he believed groups like Bayan were in league with the communist rebels, adding “We will study and maybe we will have a crackdown here somewhere.”
In reaction, Anakbayan’s Crisostomo said, “That Duterte is contemplating a crackdown against activists and progressive groups speaks much of his antipathy to any criticism and his thirst for absolute power. Repression is the logical consequence of equating all dissent with detabilization.”