Wagging the Buffalo

Death threats don't worry Jovito Palparan. In fact, when communist insurgents declared him a "dead man walking" on Sept. 6, the Philippine Army's most hardened guerrilla-warfare expert dubbed himself "live man walking"--then went on a walkabout. With two NEWSWEEK visitors in tow, he took a 90-minute drive through the heart of rebel territory in Central Luzon in a Hyundai minivan with only one pistol-packing bodyguard inside. No worries, said the general. "The New People's Army is not that capable, or that good. I don't have respect for their ability to engage me. So why should I be afraid?"

The general's resolve to end his nation's 37-year-old communist rebellion is incandescent. He blames it--rather than bad governance--for the poverty, corruption and lawlessness that continues to afflict rural areas. Within the Armed Forces Palparan is hailed as a highly effective counterinsurgency tactician, which explains why his star has risen so high under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Since taking office in 2001 she has put him in a string of challenging commands, including leadership of the Philippine deployment to Iraq. He reached the military's mandatory retirement age of 56 last week, but may be appointed to a government position. (One rumor is that he could become the country's next Defense secretary.)

In many ways the president and Palparan are now political codependents. The unpopular Arroyo needs the influential commander to boost her credibility, while the general wants leeway to wage the ongoing counterinsurgency his way--by "neutralizing" not just armed rebels but also a web of alleged front organizations that include leftist political parties, human-rights and women's organizations, even lawyers and members of the clergy. On Arroyo's orders, Palparan and other commanders got tough on the NPA back in 2001 and claim to have since reduced its fighting strength by nearly half, to roughly 7,000 combatants. Yet during the same period human-rights standards have deteriorated sharply. In an August report, Amnesty International noted "a pattern of politically targeted executions." Kara-patan, a domestic human-rights group the military claims is pro-communist, puts the toll at more than 700 and accuses Palparan of personally running death squads (which the general denies).

Critics see political motives behind the government's hard line. Some suggest that Arroyo has been so weakened by scandal and questions about the legitimacy of her election that she dare not rein in her coup-prone military. Others say the commander in chief and her various coalition partners are trying to drum up a new Red scare. "It can be argued that the insurgency is useful for political purposes," says retired Gen. Jose T. Almonte, who as national-security adviser under President Fidel Ramos had talked peace with the communists and invited them to contest elections. "Arroyo declared war on the insurgency because she was beleaguered politically. She's wagging the water buffalo."

That said, the hacienda owners, political families and business elites who have effectively run the Philippines since independence, are unsettled by what looks like a leftist revival. As in Latin America--where left-wing populism has been resurgent since 2000--communists and former communists are a budding political force. In the past two elections they've done surprisingly well; in 2004 they garnered some 17 percent of the popular vote and 6 of 20 seats awarded by proportional representation.

After an abortive coup in February, Arroyo declared emergency rule and issued arrest warrants for a handful of leftist politicians, alleging that they had committed treason by manipulating disgruntled military officers and "far-right elements" such as the conservative Roman Catholic sect Opus Dei in a conspiracy to topple her government. (Western diplomats in Manila say the plot originated with senior military commanders who had lost confidence in Arroyo.) Since then, the number of political killings has risen markedly; in the first eight months of 2006, there have been more than 60, many committed by masked gunmen riding motorcycles. According to data from the Philippine National Police, most of the cases are under investigation-- but there have been no convictions.

In the Central Luzon province of Nueva Ecija, Palparan's anti-communist strategy is to engage locals, gather intelligence and identify outside agitators. Small military teams block access to so-called militants representing political parties like Bayan Muna and Akbayan, which Palparan considers "a different face of [communist] political warfare that's not healthy for our democracy." The goal, he says, is to neutralize rebel activities by empowering the "silent majority." To that end, the military is creating village-level militia to keep rebels and activists out after soldiers depart.

But Palparan's tactics are under scrutiny. In the three areas where he has held command since 2001, 128 alleged "communist sympathizers" have been murdered. In one high-profile case, masked gunmen abducted two human-rights investigators working in Mindoro Oriental in April 2003, then bound, tortured and killed them. Witnesses identified a sergeant in Palparan's 204th Infantry Brigade as a suspect, but investigators dropped their inquiry when he claimed to have an alibi. (The murders remain unsolved.) "Death squads? I don't know what they mean by death squads," replied Palparan when asked if he runs them.

The military, however, may be fighting yesterday's battle. Most experts say the New People's Army is not a serious threat. Meanwhile the resentments that are fueling calls in some quarters for land reform and the nationalization of key industries are only growing. Lawmaker Teddy Casiño says corruption and cronyism are the real problems. Last year a $14 million fund for fertilizer for poor farms allegedly ended up not in the fields, but lining pockets in Congress. The deal's suspected architect, the then Agriculture Under Secretary Jocelyn Bolantes, fled to the United States when the Senate launched hearings into the case. Arroyo's real enemies may be closer to home, not out in the bush.

Wagging the Buffalo | News