CALABARZON MOUNTAINS, Philippines – Hidden in a remote and secluded valley somewhere in the mountains of northern Philippines, around 30 comrades recently celebrated the 50th anniversary since the New People’s Army launched its revolutionary struggle.
The NPA – Asia’s oldest communist guerrilla – is the armed wing of the banned Communist Party of the Philippines. EFE was able to gain exclusive access to the secret base of the “Melito Glor Commando” that operates in the region of Calabarzon, located in the south of Luzon island.
A taxing four-hour march – which takes experienced combatants only two hours – through brooks, mud and a steep terrain littered with dry palm tree leaves and coconuts leads to the group’s temporary camp.
It can only be accessed after sunset, in strict silence and walking in single file, while armed rebels make sure that the flashlights are always pointing toward the ground.
The base’s location is temporary: the fighters are forced to change their position every two months for their own safety.
It is the life in a guerrilla: Always on the move. Always alert.
A member who goes by the name of Ka Kathryn (“Ka” means “comrade” in tagalog) wakes up at 4 am, full of energy.
“That’s the time when enemies might attack us, so all of us need to be awake,” she explains.
The fighters sleep in three-hour turns. Some take over sentry duty while the rest sleep on the cabins’ floors made of bamboo and coconut wood. There are a few hammocks, although not enough for everybody, which means they have to rotate their use.
“We are a big family here, we are comrades, we help each other,” Ka Kathryn says while preparing breakfast: rice with pork. The menu remains the same for lunch and dinner.
The camp’s routine has been upended. The tough training and military discipline have given way to a more relaxed and festive mood. The NPA turned 50 years old on March 29 and the festivities last for several days.
The rebels have prepared events such as a theater show and filled the days with popular music, speeches, rallies, military inspections, juggling with rifles and tributes to the fallen. They celebrate that the flame of the rebellion stays alive in over 100 fronts across the Philippine territory.
The government of President Rodrigo Duterte claims there are around 6,000 active NPA fighters. The guerrilla insists there are many more.
“The policies of liberalization and privatization are making our country lose its resources and give them to imperialists, particularly the United States,” Ka Kathryn says. “And now, the Duterte regime is opening our country to the rest of capitalists all around the world. China is joining in, as well as Japan; they all want a piece of the Philippines.”
This young revolutionary joined the NPA in 2013 after graduating from college, where she was first exposed to militant activism. She took part in protests against rising tuition costs and was further radicalized when her father lost his job.
The government privatized the power plant where he was employed. He was one of the few who managed to keep his job, although his work day was extended without a pay raise. As soon as he joined a union, he was fired.
At first, her family did not want Ka Kathryn to join the NPA. But she says – with a hint of pride – that the last time she spoke to her father, he asked her to keep on fighting.
“Don’t come home, you are our only hope to achieve social justice in this country, so bring this family justice,” he told her.
She says that the NPA does not offer any sort of economic compensation to recruits.
“We enlisted here not to get any salary, but because of our principles and because we believe it is our duty to give our lives to change our country,” she tells EFE. “Of course, the support of the masses can help us to push toward the revolution’s success.”
However, sources within humanitarian organizations that work in the conflict areas have told EFE that the guerrilla pays its members – who mostly stem from the working and peasant classes – $300 a month.
The NPA currently obtains most of its funds from extortion and the so-called “revolutionary tax,” which is why the Duterte administration has labeled it a terrorist group and the US or the European Union have done the same.
They claim that they draw their support from the sympathizing masses and from allied international organizations.
The “masses” provide them with clothes, food, basic cooking utensils and tools to build their cabins. Life in the guerrilla is austere, but that does not imply that they renounce modernity: the upper echelons often have access to modern smartphones, a satellite connection and Apple computers.
While in the past, they had the backing of the Communist parties of countries such as China or Vietnam, these nations are now seen by the group as “de facto capitalists” that have undergone a “modern revisionism” of the purest form of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism that the guerrilla adheres to.
“It isn’t communism as an ideology that has failed, it is that they have systematically revised what’s being taught on Marxism,” says Ka Anse, a 25-year-old rebel.
Three-quarters of the NEP’s ranks today are under 35 years of age, showing how the revolutionary rhetoric that was prevalent in the 20th century persists in the most impoverished rural areas of the country.
“Living with the guerrillas is hard, but I am happy because serving the people motivates me to continue working towards building a new society that is free of oppression,” says Anse, who joined the NEP in 2016 after graduating university with a degree in history.
He comes from a rural family, who did not agree with his decision to join up, despite being mere tenants of the land they work, which is in the hands of a powerful landowner.
“I told them that this was the only way to achieve a better life, to have land and a better outlook for future generations,” Anse explains.
He has found love in the revolutionary ranks, and his wife, who has been assigned to another camp, is three-months pregnant.
“I hope my son will see this new society,” he says. “I am optimistic, that’s why I am here.”
Some rebels, like Ka Isay – the 22-year-old daughter of two high-ranking NPA officers – were born into the struggle.
“Ever since we were young, we knew what the revolutionary movement was about,” she says. “When I finished university in 2017, I joined the NPA to serve the people.”
Ka Jone enrolled with the NPA at the age of 34 after growing tired of working marathon days at an American home appliances factory.
“It is an experience that you can’t compare with anything else. The high mountains, the long walks, the cold... but all those experiences, all these sacrifices, are worth it because I know I am fighting for the people, I am fighting for the cause, which I am willing and ready to die for,” he says.
A LIFE ON THE FRONT
At the helm of Melito Glor, commander Jaime Padilla, aka Ka Diego, guides and mentors these young recruits. The 72-year-old has spent the last 47 years among the guerrillas, and vows to stay on the front lines of the conflict “until the end.”
“I was just an ordinary activist, but when Marcos declared martial law in 1972, I was forced to join the movement,” he said. “I went underground not knowing what would happen. All I knew is that I was doing it for the people; I am just serving the people.”
Ka Diego says nothing has changed in the Philippines since the US occupation or the Marcos dictatorship, which ended in 1986.
“The people are still poor, being oppressed by the big landowners and the dominant elites,” he says.
He also has found love in the revolution: he got married in 1986 and had a son before his wife died of cancer in 2015. His son has kept his distance from the movement to lead a normal life.
After nearly five decades as a guerrilla rebel, he has seen several incarnations of the peace process with different “reactionary governments” that have held power in the Philippines.
The peace talks with the current regime under Duterte have again broken down after the latter promised to annihilate the NPA this year.
“Duterte is not seriously trying to solve the problems the Filipino people face,” Ka Diego says. “Our revolutionary forces are ready for peace or to fight the fascist government.”
He is convinced that the revolution will “survive and defeat the government because the people still support” the rebel cause.
At another remote camp in the hills in Quezon province, 36-year-old Ka Cleo and 40-year-old Ka Wenli, who have a nine-year-old son, enjoy a life together but wholly dedicated to the cause.
“I joined because I saw the conditions in society,” says Wenli, who joined in 2001. “I used to be a coconut farmer, making coconut oil, but we never had enough money to survive.”
For his wife, who enlisted in 2006, the support of the masses shows that the guerrillas are not terrorists, as the government would have people believe.
“They can see it in the things that we do in the communities,” she says. “We are willing to sacrifice our freedoms for the people, even though if there are heavy punishments, the rebels are willing to sacrifice for their country and their fellow people.”