With the Rebels

by James Fallows
RED REVOLLTION by Gregg R. Jones. West view Press, $26.95.

BECAUSE OF THE way the fighting turned out in Cuba, Nicaragua, and above all Vietnam, Americans tend to assume that once Communist guerrillas get started, they can’t be stopped. But many cases point the other way. In the 1950s, when Malaya was still a British colony, Malayan and British Commonwealth soldiers eliminated all but a handful of the guerrillas known as CTs, for “Communist terrorists.”In the 1960s Indonesia killed hundreds of thousands of its Communists, along with countless other people, during a wave of violence that lasted for at least half a year. In the late 1970s, even as Communist Vietnamese forces tightened their hold on South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Thailand was subduing the Communist guerrillas who operated in the hills bordering Indochina.

The Philippines, too, has defeated Communist-led guerrillas. The Hukbalahap rebellion of the late 1940s and early 1950s was put down under the leadership of the popular and honest Defense Minister, and later President, Ramón Magsaysay. The Philippines has another popular and honest President now, but it is an open question whether Corazon Aquino or her successors will be able to contain the New People’s Army (NPA), which has been operating in the archipelago for more than twenty years.
For the past five of those years a young American named Gregg Jones has reported on the guerrillas, traveling with them for a total of about two and a half years. In Red Revolution he reveals what he has learned. This book will never be read for its literary polish; Jones is at best a workmanlike writer, and he lacks a highly developed sense of how to tell a story or make a point. (In one all too typical example he introduces a young guerrilla named Lisa, says that she grew up in a privileged Manila environment and had trouble adjusting to the hard life in the bush, tells us that she fell sick with a mysterious jungle ailment and was taken to the hospital after she took a sudden turn for the worse—and then changes the subject and never gets around to telling us whether she lived or died.) William Chapman’s Inside the Philippine Revolution, published two years ago, is much more skillful in combining reportage with a historical and cultural perspective on the growth of the NPA. A novel called Mass, by the renowned Filipino writer F. Sionil Jose, is even more accomplished in evoking the half-idealistic, half juveniledelinquent culture of young rebels in Manila.
I mention these stylistic problems mainly to get them out of the way, because the prodigious, often brave reporting that Jones has done makes this an engrossing and highly informative book. Jones, who is only thirty, has spent more time with the Philippine rebels than any other American reporter I’m aware of, and his book is full of information available nowhere else.
The biggest scoop in the book (apart from the by-the-way disclosure that Rodolfo Salas, an important Communist leader who was captured by the government, kept a copy of David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics on the bookshelf in his prison cell) concerns the Plaza Miranda incident of 1971. At the Plaza Miranda, a popular gathering place in Manila, the Liberal Party was holding a rally for candidates who would run against Marcos. Someone threw grenades toward the platform, killing nine people and injuring more than a hundred. Marcos immediately blamed the Communists, and he used the episode as part of his justification for imposing martial law the following year. The Communists, along with many of Marcos’s critics in the United States, said that Marcos had cynically engineered the whole incident himself and was making scapegoats of the Communists. According to Jones, Marcos was right all along. Jones says that José María Sison, the founder and chief strategist of the Communist Party of the Philippines, planned the bombing in hopes that it would have exactly the effect it did—discrediting Marcos and provoking him to take extreme steps. The CPP heatedly denies responsibility for the bombing, but Jones’s evidence, taken mainly from interviews with Party members who had never before discussed the incident with a reporter, is very convincing. Jones says that shortly after the bombing the Party member who had carried it out started bragging about what he had done. An NPA “court” was assembled to try him for disloyalty, and by a 6-3 vote the judges decided on the death penalty. Jones tell us that “in a gesture of party solidarity,” a woman who had voted against the death penalty volunteered to pull the trigger.
The Plaza Miranda episode illustrates several larger themes that run through the book. One is the intensity of factional and ideological feuding within the Communist Party and its military arm, the NPA. The disagreements often turn on whether the Communists should hope that Philippine politics becomes fairer and the average Filipino’s life becomes easier—or that everything gets worse, so as to force a revolutionary crisis. The question emerged in particularly stark form when Marcos called his “snap election” late in 1985 and Corazon Aquino decided to run against him. The hardliners argued that the CPP should boycott the election and refuse to help the Aquino forces—a disastrous miscalculation that convinced millions of Filipinos that the Communists did not really care about the country’s welfare.

ANOTHER THEME is the NPA’s heavy but not indiscriminate reliance on violence. Jones points out that the Plaza Miranda bombing remained a source of quiet self-recrimination within the movement. Since then random terrorism against civilians or mere bystanders in the Philippines has been rare, even though the overall level of political violence is high. The Communists seem to have concluded that generalized violence, of the sort familiar from the Middle East and Northern Ireland, hurts their cause. Two years ago, in an exception that proves the rule, NPA saboteurs blew up several bridges that connected the farming areas of Bicol with Manila. In theory this might have demonstrated the government’s inability to control the countryside—but in fact it mainly embittered the populace against the Communists, because without those bridges the farmers could not sell their crops, and the prices of basic commodities soared. Jones also shows, however, that the Communists are not at all squeamish about targeted political violence. Nearly every chapter contains accounts of the executions of dissenters or “sparrow unit” assassinations of government or military officials. Jones tells in frightening detail about an intra-Party bloodbath on the southern island of Mindanao, “an NPA purge so terrifying and brutal that hundreds of guerrillas and perhaps tens of thousands of civilian supporters deserted the formidable communist organization on Mindanao between 1985 and 1987.” The guerrillas initially built support in many villages, Jones says, by presenting themselves as free-lance crime-stoppers, who would put an end to theft, waterbuffalo rustling, and other offenses. The villagers would mention their complaints, and a few days or weeks later the perpetrators would disappear or turn up dead. Jones says, “If some in the village were uncertain about supporting the guerrillas, the killings served as a reminder that it was prudent to stay in their good graces.”

One other, surprising implication of the Plaza Miranda episode is that Ferdinand Marcos and other anti-Communists were telling the truth more often than the outside world believed. In the summer of 1972 a decrepit fishing trawler called the Karagatan ran aground off a remote coastline area of Luzon. Marcos claimed, to widespread international derision, that the ship was carrying weapons and supplies for the guerrillas, sent from China. Jones shows that Marcos’s version was correct: the Karagatan was full of rifles and ammunition, which the rebels badly needed and most of which the Philippine Army seized. (Jones gives a fascinating discussion of the ChinesePhilippine connection, in which he shows that the Philippine Communists looked most admiringly at China during the era of the Little Red Book and the Cultural Revolution.) Anti-Communists in the Philippines have long contended that the CPP was insincere in forming a popular-front alliance with religious groups and liberals, and that the NPA never seriously intended to negotiate for peace during the ceasefire period that Aquino had promised during her election campaign. Jones says that these criticisms, too, are essentially correct. The Party strategists felt they couldn’t flatly reject Aquino’s offer, but “the CPP leadership made it clear to all its forces that [the peace talks] in no way signaled a departure from the strategic line emphasizing armed struggle as the key to seizing political power.”
One of the most remarkable things about this book is the combination of warmth and objectivity with which Jones discusses his subjects. He has obviously spent enough time with Communist leaders and NPA foot soldiers to think of them as friends, or at least to present them as real people, with children and hobbies and fears, rather than as stick-figure revolutionaries. (Some of the favorite diversions in the guerrilla camps, he says, are singing ballads and pop songs, including American hits, and playing chess—activities that are also favorites in the Philippines as a whole.) And Jones has seen enough of the misery and injustice of the Philippines to understand why people join the NPA. In the preface to his book he says that his purpose is not to provide an analysis of the Communists’ military or political vulnerabilities. But by faithfully reporting what he has seen, Jones does end up revealing several of the weaknesses of the movement.

ONE IS SIMPLY the moral appeal of Corazon Aquino. Jones shows again and again and again how Marcos’s downfall and Aquino’s apparent sincerity took the steam out of the revolutionary movement. Aquino did not draw as many guerrillas away from the NPA as she had hoped, but she greatly dampened its popular support.

A second vulnerability is even simpler: the rebels don’t have enough guns. William Chapman’s book stressed that the rebels’ operations were often limited not by manpower or the degree of popular support but by their inability to get weapons from foreign suppliers. The scattered island geography of the Philippines is in one way a potential advantage to the guerrillas, because it creates hundreds of possible beach-landing sites, but it also makes their strategic situation much more difficult than that of the Communists in Vietnam. There is no friendly hinterland to fall back upon, no overland supply route comparable to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Local supply shortages often develop—especially of rifles and bullets. Jones says that ammunition is so scarce that after engagements guerrillas have to account to their superiors for each bullet they used. Through the past year, Jones says, “a shortage of rifles remained a chronic problem curtailing the growth of the NPA in many areas.”
Jones also shows that the Philippine armed forces, which are often viewed with condescension by outsiders, have repeatedly hampered and trapped the guerrillas. An impressive number of the NPA foot soldiers Jones introduces end up being arrested or killed. Vietnam has left many Americans assuming that no matter how many guerrillas die. many more will spring up. That may eventually come to pass in the Philippines, but Jones shows that the army has had an effect.
Exactly how violent and how repressive the NPA would be if it took power is impossible to say; Jones wrestles manfully with the question, eliminating any suspicion that the NPA is just another group of liberal reformers. The most chilling lines in the book are the comments of Brendan Cruz, a former Catholic priest, who told Jones that the Philippine Communists had learned one important lesson from the policy of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia: “They moved too fast.” (To be fair, Cruz was talking about the scorchedearth economic policy, not the Cambodian genocide.)
If the NPA should finally take power in the Philippines, people will look to Jones’s book as an important guide to the nature and background of the new regime. While the guerrillas remain on the outside, his book is the fullest account yet available of who they are and how they fight.