MANILA – The year 2023 was a banner year for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in its ongoing campaign against the New People's Army (NPA) insurgents and their allies as there are only 11 "weakened guerilla fronts" and "a little over 1,500" fighters remaining nationwide.
AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., during a command conference on Jan. 15, vowed to put an end to the five-decade-old war against the NPA this 2024.
Brawner said the AFP has "accomplished a lot in defeating" the NPA and other local terrorist groups in the country, noting there used to be around 13 weakened guerilla fronts but now down to 11, thanks to the ongoing reduction efforts by the military and the government.
This includes reducing the armed combatants of the NPAs to just over 1,500 nationwide compared to the 25,000 recorded in the late 80s to early 90s.
Not resting on these laurels, the AFP chief said more efforts were needed to prevent NPA remnants from trying to recover the areas and supporters they have lost.
This is why ground troops were issued "a new set of targets" to defeat the NPAs once and for all.
"So we gave a new set of targets to our commanders to totally defeat the communist terrorist group (CTG), by doing that, we will be able to shift now to territorial defense," Brawner said.
On Dec. 31, the AFP issued a statement where it reported that it has dismantled eight NPA guerilla fronts for 2023.
"As of December, there are no more active CTG guerilla fronts," AFP public affairs office chief Col. Xrexes Trinidad said in the same statement.
AFP's continued focused military operations also resulted in the neutralization of 67 high-value individuals belonging to communist and local terrorist groups.
"Among the top leaders neutralized are Dionisio Macabalo, also known as alias Muling/Kardo, who was the Secretary of the North Central Mindanao Regional Committee, and Farahudin Pumbaya Pangalian, also known as alias Abu Zacharia, who was the Amir of (Daulah Islamiyah) DI-Philippines and overall Amir Islamic State-East Asia," Trinidad noted.
In 2023, the AFP successfully neutralized 1,399 members of communist and local terrorist groups, while 1,751 firearms were seized through capture, confiscation, recovery, or surrender.
Military efforts to continue despite waning NPA threats
Despite these developments that highlight the waning NPA threat, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. said the government will remain on guard even as the insurgents are reported to have “zero active guerilla fronts".
“Ngayon, maaari na nating ma-i-report na wala ng active NPA guerilla front as of December 2023. Kaya patuloy nating ipaglalaban ito (Now, we can report that there is no active NPA guerilla front as of December 2023. So, we will continue to fight for it),” Marcos said in a video message uploaded on his official Facebook page last Jan. 13.
“These accomplishments underscore our steadfast commitment to peace and stability,” he added.
Good year for comprehensive peace process
As this developed, Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace Reconciliation and Unity (OPAPRU) Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. described 2023 as a "banner year" for the comprehensive Philippine peace process.
He also cited "major milestones" in the government's peace efforts with various groups, including the Bangsamoro, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, National Democratic Front, and those in the Cordilleras.
“Major milestones have been achieved in the comprehensive Philippine peace process under the Marcos administration’s Five-Point Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity agenda,” Galvez said.
“We would like to assure you that the Marcos administration is determined to push forward, build upon, and sustain the gains of the comprehensive peace process,” he added.
Galvez also noted that amid two major wars in different parts of the world, the Philippines is looked upon by the international community as a beacon of hope and inspiration for its successful peacebuilding efforts.
“Our country has shown that good things come to those who choose and walk the path of peace. Let us continue doing so and become a beacon of hope, mutual understanding, and solidarity,” he said.
Bangsamoro Peace Process
Galvez cited significant progress under the Bangsamoro peace process, as the Bangsamoro Parliament has passed five of its seven priority codes, to improve the socioeconomic conditions of its people and boost the region’s economy.
These codes include the Administrative Code, Civil Service Code, Electoral Code, Local Government Code, and Education Code.
“The crafting of these codes is an indication that the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) has really gotten stronger, especially in terms of passing key legislation that will unlock the full economic potential of the region and bring economic progress to the people,” Galvez said.
He added all seven mechanisms of the National Government – Bangsamoro Government Intergovernmental Relations Body (IGRB) have been established and are now functioning.
These IGRB mechanisms include the Philippine Congress-Bangsamoro Parliament Forum (PCBPF); Intergovernmental Fiscal Policy Board (IFPB); Joint Body for the Zones of Joint Cooperation (JBZJC); Intergovernmental Infrastructure Development Board (IFPB); Intergovernmental Energy Board (IEB); and Bangsamoro Sustainable Development Board (BSDB); and the Council of Leaders.
“With the accomplishments of the IGRB this year, we have no doubt that the body will be able to sustain its momentum in 2024, as it effectively addresses pressing issues brought to its attention, and help uplift the lives of the Bangsamoro people,” he said.
MNLF, MILF: A different battle
In 2023, Galvez said 26,145 former MILF combatants have also been decommissioned and “are now living as peaceful and productive civilians in their communities.”
A key component of the Normalization Program under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), decommissioning is the process wherein the former combatants lay down their arms and return to mainstream society.
“These former MILF combatants are now fighting a different battle and that is, a battle to improve their socioeconomic well-being and create a better future for themselves and their families,” he said.
He added the Transformation Program for Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) combatants, which was launched in October this year, is anticipated to uplift the lives of the group’s members and empower them as agents of peace and development.
“More importantly, the national government is showing the MNLF that it is focused, more than ever, to fulfill all the commitments it had made under the 1996 Final Peace Agreement,” he added.
NDF: ending armed conflict
Galvez said a “significant peace milestone” was likewise achieved by the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP).
He bared that the series of back-channeling and exploratory talks between the government and the NDFP resulted in the signing of the Oslo Joint Communique last Nov. 23 in Norway.
“The intention of the parties is very clear. This is to end the armed conflict, to end the armed struggle, and the transformation of the CPP-NPA-NDFP,” Galvez said, who announced the peace breakthrough in Malacañang on Nov. 28.
“We want to resolve all the socioeconomic drivers of conflict, and at the same time, end armed struggle through peaceful resolution of conflict. We’ve been divided as a people by this conflict for more than 50 years,” he added.
On the other hand, Galvez said the government is making headway with the Localized Peace Engagement (LPE) initiative.
The LPE cluster of the National Task Force to Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is being co-chaired by OPAPRU and the DILG, continues to roll out the Transformation Program for former rebels, their families, and communities.
“We have been conducting Transformation Program workshops together with provincial local government units and partner agencies nationwide to help former rebels fully reintegrate into mainstream society and rebuild their lives,” he said.
Meanwhile, the OPAPRU's Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan or PAMANA Program is also building much-needed infrastructure projects that are helping to bring social cohesion, and create more livelihood opportunities for residents in focus areas nationwide.
“The bulk of OPAPRU’s nearly PHP7 billion budget for 2024 will be used to fund the PAMANA Program, which seeks to bring essential government services closer to the people, especially in remote, undeveloped communities in focus areas,” Galvez said.
Amnesty for former rebels
Galvez is optimistic that with the upcoming roll-out of the national government’s amnesty program for former rebels, “more will be encouraged to turn away from armed struggle, lay down their arms, and return to the folds of the law.”
He said the granting of amnesty is an integral part of the comprehensive peace process that will foster genuine healing, reconciliation and deepen the trust and confidence in the government which is needed for the economy to grow while building on the gains of peace.
“It is a path towards normalization that would allow former rebels not only to fully reintegrate themselves into mainstream society as peaceful, productive and law-abiding citizens, but more importantly, enable them to rebuild their lives and ensure a better future for themselves and their families,” Galvez said.
Needs of former conflict-affected communities
In a related development, the Department of the Interior and Local Government Benhur Abalos announced that it is committed to implement development programs to address critical gaps in former conflict-affected areas and reintegration of former rebels through financial assistance.
"As of the latest tally, 1,119 surrendering former rebels have received DILG-administered financial assistance under the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program or E-CLIP amounting to nearly PHP91.5 billion," he added.
Abalos also said they will continue to foster inclusivity in the pursuit of good local governance and the peace agenda.
"In line with the Bangsamoro Organic Law, we have facilitated the entry of former MILF and MNLF members into the PNP with a total of 396 former MILF and MNLF members taking their oath as part of our police force last year," he added. (with a report from Lloyd Caliwan/PNA)