Deep roots of revolution: the new people’s army in the Bicol region of the Philippines Volume 2, Issue 2

Les profondes racines de la révolution: le “new people’s army” dans la région de Bicol aux Philippines

HOLDEN, William N.

Abstract: One part of the Philippines where conflict between the New People’s Army (NPA), a Maoist organization, and the state has been pronounced is the Bicol region of southeast Luzon. The NPA exemplify a violent response of the poor and marginalized to the structural violence inherent in Philippine society. Neoliberalism involves substantial amounts of structural violence and the Philippine government has embraced neoliberalism, with it its disdain for wealth redistribution, and has implemented policies adversely impacting the poor. In Bicol, direct violence has been used extensively to eliminate those standing in contradistinction to neoliberalism. The violence of the NPA represents violence from below challenging violence from above and Maoism remains relevant in poor and marginalized places, such as Bicol.

KeywordsPhilippines, Bicol, Insurgency Warfare, New People’s Army, Neoliberalism


Résumé: Une région des Philippines où le conflit entre la Nouvelle armée du peuple (NAP), une organisation maoïste, et l’État a été virulent se trouve à Bicol, au sud-est de Luzon. La NAP illustre une réaction violente des pauvres et des marginalisés de la violence structurelle inhérente à la société philippine. Le néolibéralisme intègre une importante violence structurelle adoptée par le gouvernement philippin; il a pris à son compte son dédain pour la redistribution des richesses, et ses politiques qui portent atteinte aux pauvres. À Bicol, la violence flagrante a été largement utilisée pour éliminer ceux qui s’opposaient au néolibéralisme. La violence de la NAP représente la violence d’en bas face à la violence d’en haut et le maoïsme reste pertinent dans des endroits pauvres et marginalisés comme Bicol.

Mots clés :  Philippines, Bicol, Combat d’insurrection, New People’s Army, Néolibéralisme




A theoretical framework of neoliberalism: hegemonic violence from above

A theoretical framework of insurgency warfare

The Philippines: oligarchy, unrest, and neoliberalism

The communist party of the Philippines- new people’s army: maoism in the philippines

The Bicol region: the southeast margin of Luzon

The communist party of the Philippines and the new people’s army in Bicol

Enabling factors of the new people’s army in Bicol

Concluding discussion: maoism after the end of history


Texte intégralFormat PDF


On 29 April 2012, members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), attacked a group of ten soldiers from the Philippine Army in Labo, Camarines Norte, in the Bicol Region of southeast Luzon (Natividad, 2012). Four soldiers were killed, while another was wounded, and the NPA relieved the soldiers of eight firearms and departed. This event is representative of the ongoing violence between the NPA and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), one of the world’s longest running communist insurgencies that has claimed over 43,000 lives since 1969 (Quimpo, 2008). While some scholars have chosen to disregard the subnational dimensions of insurgency warfare, this article specifically engages in a subnational examination of such a conflict and addresses the question why does a disproportionate amount of the conflict between the NPA and the AFP occur in the Bicol Region? What is it that makes Bicol what Santos (2010b: 43) would call a “center of gravity” for the NPA, or as the title of the article intimates, why do the NPA have such deep roots of revolution in Bicol? Following Lohman and Flint (2010), the political, economic, and social processes shaping the conflict ridden landscape of Bicol are studied.

Substantial amounts of structural violence can be found in the Philippines and the Bicolano variant of the AFP-NPA conflict is investigated as a response by the poor and marginalized to this structural violence. Accordingly, the conflict in Bicol is examined as a manifestation of what Pagaduan-Araullo (2008: 129) describes as “defensive violence resorted to by the oppressed and exploited to challenge the existing order and to assert their rights.” Similarly, the Bicolano conflict is analyzed from the perspective of what Springer (2011: 547) would call “violence ‘from below’” being implemented against “violence ‘from above.” The article begins with a discussion of neoliberalism, a hegemonic discourse having generated substantial amounts of violence from above; this is followed by an examination of insurgency warfare; the Philippines is introduced, as is neoliberalism in the Philippines; the factors giving rise to, and imparting persistence into, the Bicolano NPA are discussed; lastly, the article concludes with a discussion of how Bicol’s violence demonstrates how violence from above generates violence from below.


In recent years neoliberalism has come to dominate the world and a widely accepted definition of neoliberalism is that provided by Harvey (2007: 22) who defines neoliberalism as: A theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade.

When a concept becomes unequivocally accepted it becomes hegemonic and this concept does not simply determine what people think, it determines the way they think (Gramsci, 1971). Neoliberalism has achieved hegemonic status and it has “achieved the supreme power of being widely taken as scientific and resulting in an optimal world” (Peet, 2003: 4).  A measure of neoliberalism’s acceptance is the disdain accorded those who do not accept its (supposedly) scientifically determined principles; these are people who defend outmoded institutions and suspiciously collectivist social rights and they are frequently subject to violent repression (Peck and Tickell, 2002).

With its scorn for income and wealth redistribution, and its prioritization of efficiency over equity, neoliberalism appeals to members of the upper class (Peet, 2003). Accordingly, many have come to view neoliberalism as an intellectual project restoring upper class power. “Neoliberalism,” stated Springer (2012: 138), “is a context in which the establishment, maintenance, and extension of hierarchical orderings of social relations are re-created, sustained, and intensified.”

Neoliberalism has faced opposition worldwide and many localized backlashes have emerged against its narrative of unlimited progress through free markets. Opposition to policies undertaken in obedience to neoliberalism’s precepts has, in many cases, been met by state repression including systematic repression and liquidations (Harvey, 2007). Examples include the violent suppression of those opposing water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia (Dangl, 2007), the assassination of anti-mining activists in Guatemala (Holden and Jacobson, 2007), and the killings of those opposed to steel mills in India (Mehra, 2011). Ruling classes desirous of retaining their privileges in society find themselves confronted with two choices: redistribute wealth to the poor (something antithetical to neoliberalism) or shift toward authoritarianism- something neoliberalism can readily accommodate (Springer, 2009). Indeed, neoliberalism can be viewed as being responsible for increased authoritarianism as those who fail to receive its benefits come into conflict with those reaping its rewards (Springer, 2009).

The term “structural violence” is ascribed to Galtung (1969: 183) who saw violence emanating from social injustice and, conversely, saw “the absence of structural violence” as being “what we have referred to as social justice.” The substantial inequality associated with neoliberalism means that it generates structural violence (Springer 2012). Neoliberalism’s structural violence, along with the direct violence used to perpetuate its policies, is refereed to by Springer (2011: 528) as “violence ‘from above,’”; this is intended “to preserve the status quo of the established order.” In contrast to violence from above, “violence from below refers to the anger and resentment felt by the general population toward the structures of the existing political economy” (Springer, 2011: 547). Violence from below is often referred to as “political violence” and it counteracts violence from above or “state violence” (Springer, 2011: 547). Another way of contemplating the confrontation of the lower classes with the upper classes, and the forces of the state at their disposal, is the concept of the counter-hegemonic discourse (Peet, 2003). These are alternative conceptions of the social order emanating from the experiences of the oppressed (Peet, 2003). Confrontations between the hegemonic and the counter-hegemonic are marked by episodes of violence and it is on behalf of the marginalized and dispossessed that acts of violence penetrate into the heart of hegemony (Peet, 2003). What Springer (2011) would refer to as violence from below being used against violence from above, or what Peet (2003) would describe as a contestation between the hegemonic and the counter-hegemonic, can occur during an insurgency and attention now shifts to insurgency warfare.


Insurgency is defined by Lohman and Flint (2010: 1154) as “a violent political process through which peoples or groups, who are excluded from power, contest the ruling authority to alter or replace existing power relationships.” According to Lohman and Flint (2010: 1154), “insurgencies are inherently geographic as they occur in particular places and across territorial space.” Many insurgencies follow the Maoist model of insurgency developed by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Revolution. Examples of Maoist insurgency include the Viet Minh and Viet Cong in Vietnam from 1945 to 1975 (Race, 1972), Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) in Peru from 1980 to 1992 (Marks, 1996), and the Naxalite insurgency currently underway in India (Mehra, 2011). Unlike Marxist-Leninist movements, such as the Greek Communists during the late 1940s (Kalyvas, 2006), which emphasize insurrection led by the urban working class, Maoism is based upon a doctrine known as the protracted people’s war from the countryside wherein revolution begins in the countryside, expands taking over the cities, and then ultimately engulfs the entire country. Maoist organizations use what are called the three instruments of revolution wherein there will be a political party directing the revolution, a front group representing the interests of the party in society, and an armed group acting as the army of the revolution (Caouette 2004). The party acts as the brain, the front group acts as the shield, and the army acts as the sword.

Important motivators of any insurgency are grievances, sources of discontent motivating people into taking up arms. Economic grievances, such as poverty, are powerful motivators for people to enter an insurgency. In an agrarian society a compelling grievance is landlessness as it is “every peasant’s ambition to own sufficient land” (Thompson, 1966: 65). If most of the land in an agrarian society is held by a small number of owners an insurgency will find recruits among the landless. Often governments, in attempting to combat an insurgency, abuse the population and drive people into its ranks. Many join an insurgency due to government abuses of power; family members may have been killed or tortured by the government (Thompson, 1966).

Insurgencies are aided by physical geography with some landscapes providing an effective setting for them. According to Che Guevara (1961: 25), insurgencies thrive “in zones difficult to reach, either because of dense forests, steep mountains, impassable deserts, or marshes.” One of the most important aspects of physical geography for insurgency warfare is mountainous terrain as this makes it more difficult for large groups of government forces to pursue insurgents (Kalyvas, 2006). Intimately related to physical geography is population density; a concentrated population makes it easier for a government to control the population while a dispersed population requires a larger military force for population control (Collier et al., 2005). Insurgencies are also influenced by political geography since insurgents prefer operating where there are administrative boundaries, such as provincial or municipal borders, within a state (Kalyvas, 2006). There will be a lack of coordination between government agencies in areas close to administrative boundaries and government officials in one area often assign responsibility for counterinsurgency operations to their counterparts in adjacent areas.

While the physical terrain can provide ideal warfare settings for insurgents the social terrain endows the insurgent with a mass base to provide supplies, intelligence, and recruits (Thompson, 1966).  Insurgents enhance their prospects of developing a mass base by providing services, such as the eradication of criminals, from areas where they have influence (Le Billon, 2005). Providing services requires funding and insurgents tend to fund themselves in three ways: from neighboring states; from an ethnic diaspora; or by extorting local businesses (O’Loughlin, 2005). Insurgency is driven by finance and rebel groups try to establish strongholds wherever transportation routes and resources are located (Le Billon, 2005). Insurgencies also require weapons and these can be supplied from sympathetic governments in other states or from sympathizers abroad. Lacking external sources of weaponry, government troops become the principal source of weapons and they are taken from government troops after being attacked by insurgents (Galula, 1964; Guevara, 1961). Having discussed insurgency warfare in general, attention now turns to the specific case of the insurgency of the NPA in the Philippines and in the Bicol region of the Philippines.


The Philippines (Figure 1) has a society dominated by a powerful oligarchy and marked by tremendous disparities in income, which McCoy (2009: 539) described as “an inequitable society, polarized between a rich oligarchy and [a] poor majority.” This inequality emanates from the archipelago’s serial colonization (Holden and Jacobson, 2012). From 1565 until 1898 the Philippines was a Spanish colony and this endowed the archipelago with a heritage of exploitative colonial rule producing the principalia, a small class of wealthy, Hispanized planters and merchants holding sway over the masses of poor, uneducated agricultural laborers and subsistence farmers (Birtle, 2004). In the waning years of the nineteenth century, the plight of the peasantry began worsening; as Linn (2000: 16) wrote, “By the 1890s much of the Philippines was in severe distress, plagued by social tension, disease, hunger, banditry and rebellion.” In 1896, revolution broke out under the leadership of Andres Bonifacio, a man of lower class origins, and his Katipunan Society.[1] In 1897, Emilio Aguinaldo, a member of the principalia, took control of the revolution, and it merely became a revolution against Spanish control of the archipelago losing any pretext of being a vehicle for remaking Filipino society (Holden and Jacobson, 2012).

Nouvelle image (27)Figure 1: The Philippines, an Archipelago of 7,100 islands in Southeast Asia

In 1898, the United States intervention in the islands morphed from an adjunct of the Spanish-American War into a quest for an Asian colony. The Philippine-American War broke out in 1899 and Aguinaldo led an insurgency against the Americans. The principalia, however, soon collaborated with the United States, which promised to protect their economic privileges, and the war’s end in 1902 saw the principalia incorporated into the colonial state apparatus. From their position at the helm of the government, their economic privileges were preserved.

The archipelago’s has had a history of social unrest. During World War II, the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (People’s Army against Japan or Hukbalahap), an organization affiliated with the Marxist-Leninist Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines or PKP), became the most effective anti-Japanese resistance group and when that war ended it transformed into the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (People’s Liberation Army or HMB) and fought for the rights of landless peasants during the late 1940s and early 1950s (Kerkvliet, 1977). The response of successive governments to the poverty of the archipelago’s inhabitants, and an ostensible solution to the archipelago’s social unrest, has been an implementation of neoliberal polices in the hope that a rising tide of free market prosperity will lift all boats and eliminate poverty. In the words of Quimpo (2008: 49), “The government has pursued various ‘structural adjustment programs’ since the Marcos era, stressing first trade liberalization, then debt repayment, and finally free-market transformation marked by rapid deregulation, privatization, and trade and investment liberalization.”

While the ostensible solution of the government to social unrest has been the implementation of neoliberal policies, its unfeigned response has been to rely upon repression to forestall demands for change from below (McCoy, 2009). Demands from the lower classes for a redistribution of wealth and income have been repressed and much of the repression used by the upper classes has been facilitated by the close ties between the AFP and the United States military. These ties were developed during the American colonial period (1898 to 1946) and were strengthened by the presence in the Philippines of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base (Figure 1), which were (until their respective closures in 1991 and 1992) the two largest overseas United States military bases (McCoy, 2009). United States influence has increased as American aid has poured into the Philippines to assist the Philippine government in the “War on Terror” after 11 September 2001 (Holden, 2011). One institution calling for change from below in the Philippines has been the CPP and attention now turns to the genesis, and persistence, of the CPP both nationwide and in the Bicol region.


The CPP was reestablished along Maoist lines, replacing the old PKP by Jose Maria Sison, an English professor from the University of the Philippines, on 26 December 1968, the 75th birthday of Mao Zedong (Santos, 2010a). According to Caouette (2004: 9), the communist movement in the Philippines is consistent with Mao’s three instruments of revolution having three institutional components: a political party, the CPP; a front group representing the interests of the party in society, the National Democratic Front (NDFP); and an army, the NPA. The NPA was established by Sison on 29 March 1969 (the 27th anniversary of the founding of the Hukbalahap); indeed, the NPA views itself as the new people’s army just as the Hukbalahap was the original people’s army against Japan (Danenberg et al., 2007). The NDFP was created in 1973; it consists of organizations representing the various sectors of society such as peasants, workers, women, and teachers (Caouette, 2004).

The NPA has been engaged in conflict with the AFP since 1969 and although it has suffered a substantial loss of strength since the mid-1980s, when it had 20,000 to 25,000 armed cadres, it is still a formidable force and is estimated to have approximately 5,000 armed fighters (International Crisis Group, 2011).  To acquire an estimate of NPA activity the Philippines Communist Insurgency Report, prepared by Pacific Strategies and Assessments (a business risk consultancy firm), was used. According to Pacific Strategies and Assessments (2011, 2012), from 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2012 there were 1,426 incidents[2] of CPP-NPA activity resulting in 463 fatalities and 601 casualties. Although the CPP-NPA has a nationwide presence there is substantial CPP-NPA activity along the eastern side of Mindanao, on Negros, on Samar, in the Southern Tagalog Region, and in the Bicol Peninsula of Luzon to which attention now turns.


The Philippines has been divided into a number of regions for administrative purposes and Bicol, the southeastern portion of the island of Luzon, is Region V (Figure 1). By virtue of the short distances between Bicol and Samar, between Samar and Leyte, and between Leyte and Mindanao, Bicol effectively connects the seat of government in Manila with the rich resources of Mindanao. The Bicol region has a total land area of 18,156 square kilometers, approximately 6.05 percent of the land area of the Philippines (National Statistical Coordination Board, 2013a). Bicol consists of six provinces; four contiguous provinces (Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, and Sorsogon) and two island provinces (Catanduanes and Masbate) (Figure 1). These six provinces are further subdivided into 114 municipalities/cities and 3,471 barangays (villages).[3] Bicol’s topography is mountainous (Figure 2) with 49 percent of all land area having a slope greater than 18 degrees (Monsod and Monsod, 2003).

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Figure 2: Surface Relief and Mine Locations in the Bicol Region

In terms of Bicol’s population, there were 5,420,411 Bicolanos in 2010 and this represented 5.87 percent of the total Philippine population (National Statistical Coordination Board, 2013a). In 2010 Bicol had a population density of 298.55 people per square kilometer, varying from a high of 487.86 people per square kilometer, in Albay, down to 165.06 people per square kilometer, in Catanduanes (National Statistical Coordination Board, 2013a). Population density also varies among Bicol’s 114 municipalities and municipal population density is shown in Figure 3.

Bicol is not only on the margins of Luzon, with respect to its location, but it is also very much a marginalized area of the Philippines due to its prevailing high levels of poverty. In 2009, 45.1 percent of all Bicolanos were living in poverty while only 26.5 percent of all Filipinos were living in poverty (National Statistical Coordination Board, 2013b). In that same year, Bicol had the third highest regional poverty rate in the Philippines; only the Caraga region (Figure 1) of northeast Mindanao (47.8 percent), and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (45.9 percent) had higher regional poverty rates (National Statistical Coordination Board 2013b). Bicol is clearly the poorest region of Luzon; the second highest regional poverty rate on Luzon (Figure 1) was the Ilocos Region, at 23.3 percent, and the average for all of Luzon’s regions was 23.9 percent (National Statistical Coordination Board 2013b).

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Figure 3: Municipal Population Density in the Bicol Region

The provincial poverty rates within Bicol range from a low of 28.5 percent, in Catanduanes, up to a high of 54.2 percent in Masbate, one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines (National Statistical Coordination Board, 2013b). Poverty rates also vary among Bicol’s 114 municipalities and municipal poverty rates are displayed in Figure 4. Bicol’s high poverty rates arise from many factors (poor roads, corruption, and a lack of access by the poor to productive resources) but one of the most prominent is the region’s vulnerability to typhoons. Typhoons form southeast of the Philippines, track northwesterly, through Bicol, and destroy crops and infrastructure thus impeding economic development (Holden and Jacobson, 2012). Another factor contributing to Bicol’s poverty is landlessness. In the Philippines, land reform is governed by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), created by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law(Republic Act 6657). An evaluation of land reform effectiveness was conducted by Borras (2007) for the entire Philippines and land reform effectiveness was declared to be of medium effectiveness.In Bicol, however, Borras (2007) only rated land reform effectiveness as being of low-to-medium effectiveness. Indeed, Borras (2007) found that Bicol has one of the archipelago’s lowest rates of land reform accomplishment with only half of all lands targeted for land reform having been distributed. With its high incidence of poverty Bicol has been a hotbed of revolutionary activity and attention now turns to the Bicolano NPA.


The origins of the CPP in Bicol date back to 1969 when an expansion team of activists was sent there by the party’s leadership (Santos, 2010b). Then, in 1970, activists began organizing efforts in Legazpi City while Romulo Jallores, an activist from Manila, sought shelter in Bicol from state security forces (Santos, 2010b). Jallores, and some of his colleagues, had a small supply of weapons and they built popular support among Bicolanos by eliminating criminal elements; from this they expanded their activities to deliberate encounters with the military and, as their supply of weapons grew, they began consolidating their position (Santos, 2010b).

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Figure 4: Bicol Municipal Poverty Rates

After President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in September of 1972, many members of the CPP-NPA, originally from Bicol, went to NPA base areas in the region to seek refuge (Lobrigo et al., 2005).

During the 1980s, the Bicolano NPA escaped the NPA’s internal purge, an event that gravely weakened the NPA in other parts of the archipelago (Quimpo and Quimpo, 2012). During the early and mid 1980s the NPA grew rapidly, became complacent, and internal security was reduced. Concerns began to emerge that the movement had been infiltrated by military deep penetration agents (DPAs) and this resulted in a series of purges of suspected DPAs from 1982 to 1988. During the purges hundreds of cadres were killed and thousands of cadres left the movement out of fearing a similar fate would befall them. In Bicol, Sotero Llamas, then head of the Bicol Regional Party Committee (BPRC), “defied CPP orders to arrest, interrogate, and execute certain leaders” (Santos, 2010b: 50). The actions of Llamas “left the NPA’s Bicol branch relatively unscathed” thus protecting it from the fratricidal damage experienced elsewhere (Santos, 2010b: 50).

During the 1990s the CPP fragmented into two groups: those rejecting a continuation of the protracted people’s war (the RJ faction) and those reaffirming this approach (the RA faction) (Quimpo and Quimpo, 2012). The movement in Bicol adhered closely to the RA paradigm, indeed the BPRC even went so far as to censor any controversial document fomenting insubordination or factionalism (Santos, 2010b). This had the effect of “insulating the regional forces from the emotional and physical hazards of the ideological debate and allowed the Bicol NPA to consolidate and focus on its tasks” (Santos, 2010b: 51).

The NPA’s well developed organization in Bicol has persisted and Bicol “is currently one of the strongest NPA areas in the country” (Santos, 2010b: 44).  It is estimated that the NPA has from 600 to 700 armed combatants in Bicol and that it is the “second-strongest region of the NPA after Southern Mindanao” (Santos, 2010b: 53). Of the 1,426 incidents of NPA activity, reported by Pacific Strategies and Assessments (2011, 2012) as occurring in the Philippines from 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2012, 155 of them occurred in Bicol, where 61 people were killed and 59 were wounded. Perspective on the magnitude of NPA activity in Bicol can be gleaned by comparing the proportion of NPA incidents occurring there (10.88 percent of all incidents, 13.17 percent of fatalities, and 9.82 percent of all casualties) with the fact that Bicol constitutes only 6.05 percent of the archipelago’s land area and only 5.87 percent of its population. In Figure 5 the spatial distribution of NPA activity in Bicol during 2011 and 2012 is displayed and there was NPA in all six Bicolano provinces and NPA activity was quite widespread in Masbate and Sorsogon.

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Figure 5: NPA Activity in the Bicol Region by Municipality


The first factor contributing to the strength of the NPA in Bicol are the region’s high poverty rates. Although some of those who enter the movement are idealists, joining in response to abuses they see in Filipino society, the majority of its members are members of the rural poor for which the NPA represents a livelihood opportunity (Santos, 2010a). According to a Bicolano human rights activist, interviewed under strict condition of anonymity during 2009[4],“In areas where people are poor and have injustice, the insurgents will be strong.”

Intimately related to Bicol’s high poverty rates are its high rates of landlessness, which have been seized upon by the NPA for recruitment purposes. Roneo Clamor is the Deputy Secretary General of Karapatan[5],a human rights organization. According to Clamor, when interviewed in Quezon City on 8 January 2010, “There is so much NPA activity in Bicol because of a lack of land reform. The NPA is struggling for genuine reform and CARP does not provide genuine land reform, it does not provide land for the tillers.” With ineffective land reform in Bicol one of the central social problems of Filipino society remains unaddressed and this further fuels the revolutionary movement there. Unless, and until, effective land reform is implemented the NPA will remain strong. Attempts to defeat the NPA through purely military methods, without implementing meaningful land reform, will only perpetuate what McCoy (2009: 450) called a “Sisyphean cycle of repression and revolt.”

Another factor contributing to the strength of the NPA in Bicol are abusive measures implemented by the AFP, which, according to a human rights lawyer interviewed under strict condition of anonymity during 2010[6],“behaves like an army of occupation in its own country.” In Bicol, state forces have been implicated in substantial human rights violations (Lobrigo et al., 2005).  In Bicol, people living in NPA areas are more afraid of the military than they are of the rebels (Lobrigo et al., 2005).  The AFP has been heavy-handed in its efforts to combat the NPA driving people into the movement to seek protection from, and to fight back against, the AFP.

An important dimension of how abusive the AFP has been in its campaign against the NPA is the wave of extrajudicial killings plaguing the archipelago since 2001 wherein people, suspected of being supporters of the NPA, are assassinated by members of the AFP (Holden 2011). According to Karapatan (2010, 2012), from 21 January 2001 until 31 October 2012, 1,335 people have been killed in what are believed to have been assassinations carried out by the AFP and Bicol, with 232 killings, had the highest number of extrajudicial killings among all of the archipelago’s regions.As Roneo Clamor stated, “There have been so many killings in Bicol because it is one of the priority areas of the AFP. The AFP views Bicol as having a strong mass base and the progressive people’s organizations are very strong there. There will be a high number of killings in a region when there is a strong mass base or insurgent infrastructure.”

In writing about the enduring presence of the NPA in the Philippines, Manzanilla (2006: 101) stated “the reason why people rebel is the systematic oppression compelling the wretched of this land to take up arms and seize power.” In Bicol, with its high rate of extrajudicial killings, there is substantial oppression; this fuels the NPA as peaceful avenues of attempting to achieve change in society are foreclosed. In contrast to the abuses of the government, the NPA has, what it calls, a “People’s Revolutionary Government” providing services such as “land to till or lower land rent, the elimination of cattle rustlers, protection of peasants’ rights, literacy lessons, health services, or even protection from domestic abuse” (Santos, 2010b: 48).

Bicol’s physical geography (Figure 2) also aids the NPA and Bicol offers ideal terrain for conducting an insurgency (Lobrigo et al., 2005). Areas of rough terrain tend to be inhabited by the poorest people, marginal farmers farming on steep mountain slopes (Lobrigo et al., 2005). Many parts of Bicol have a low population density (Figure 3), which is conducive to insurgency warfare. Bicol’s division into six provinces and 114 municipalities further assists the NPA as it has always emphasized locating in border regions where two or three provinces can be influenced from one location (Caouette, 2004). Border areas also tend to be mountainous so the physical geography has a synergy with the political geography. The NPA can establish a base area in a municipality in a border area where it can influence two or even three provinces simultaneously. Such a location will also have rough terrain, a low population density, and impoverished people who are likely to join the movement. Consider, for example, the municipality of Labo, Camarines Norte, mentioned at the outset of this article. From 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2012, Labo, Camarines Norte had nine incidents of NPA activity resulting in ten deaths and ten casualties; this municipality has a population density of 134.4 people per square kilometer (well below the regional average of 298.55), has a poverty rate of 36.5 percent, and borders the provinces of Quezon and Camarines Sur. A location such as Labo, Camarines Norte is ideal for conducting an insurgency.

The NPA in Bicol funds itself through the extraction of “revolutionary taxes.” The NPA will approach mining companies, telecommunications providers, bus lines, and construction companies and demand revolutionary taxes; if they do not pay, their facilities will be attacked (Lobrigo et al., 2005). The need for revolutionary taxation has intensified since the listing of the CPP-NPA as a “terrorist organization” by the United States in August 2002 and by the European Union in October 2002 (International Crisis Group, 2011).   Although declaring the CPP-NPA a “terrorist organization” is controversial (the movement has not deliberately targeted civilians) this has precluded foreigners from legally funding the movement thus making it even more reliant upon revolutionary taxation (Santos, 2010a).

The Bicolano NPA displays a penchant for extracting revolutionary taxes from mining, communications, and transportation companies; this is consistent with the observation of Le Billon (2005: 232) that insurgents “seek to establish permanent strongholds or areas of ‘insecurity’ wherever resources and transportation routes are located.” Bicol’s mining projects (Figure 2) make excellent targets because of their fixed locations, which make them susceptible to extortion. Attacks on communications and transportation in Bicol (the connection between the seat of government in Manila and the rich resources of Mindanao) threaten to disrupt the entire economy of the archipelago. The NPA has also been largely self-sufficient in arming itself through what are called agaw armas (gun grab) raids where the NPA attacks an outnumbered AFP unit then takes its weapons (Santos 2010b). The ambush in Labo, Camarines Norte described at the outset exemplifies an agaw armas raid.

The final enabling factor of the NPA, not just in Bicol but across the entire archipelago, has been the ongoing conflicts between the AFP and the Muslim secessionist groups on Mindanao. It has been estimated that the threat posed by the Muslim groups has caused at least 40 percent of the entire AFP to be on Mindanao at any point in time (Vitug and Gloria, 2000).  With so much of the AFP devoted to fighting these Muslim groups the AFP has been unable to bring the maximum concentration of force against the NPA and this has led to a substantial easing of military pressure on the NPA (Santos, 2005).


The NPA has deep roots in Bicol for many reasons. The persistence of the deep roots of revolution exemplify what Springer (2011: 547) refers to as “violence ‘from below’” being used against “violence ‘from above.’” There are many examples of “violence from above” in Bicol, both in terms of direct violence and in terms of structural violence. The most notable form of direct violence in Bicol are the extrajudicial killings and these are intimately related to the neoliberal agenda of the government because it is more difficult for the government to attract foreign investment with an armed group, espousing an anti-capitalist ideology, waging war against the state (Holden, 2011). Neoliberalism’s structural violence has two salient manifestations in Bicol: first, a lack of enthusiasm for programs redistributing wealth and power; second, the implementation of policies that adversely impact the poor. With respect to the former, consider the government’s lack of enthusiasm for land reform. Franco and Borras (2009: 207) found that “one of the main targets of neoliberalism has been to (re)orient national land policy towards a market-based property rights regime.” With respect to the latter, consider the government’s aggressive encouragement of large-scale mining (Figure 2). Mining is, however, an activity with a substantial potential for environmental harm and one of the most notorious examples of a mining-related environmental disruption occurred in Bicol at the Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Project (Holden and Jacobson, 2012). During October of 2005 cyanide contaminated wastewater was spilled into the sea. Afterwards there was concern about the safety of fish caught there and sales of fish fell off causing up to 90 percent of the livelihoods of the local people to be lost. Much of the literature on mining and conflict discusses mining as a “greed mechanism” initiating conflict. However, as the environmental effects of mining demonstrate, mining can also serve as a “grievance mechanism” fuelling conflict. This is demonstrated by the extent to which the CPP-NPA draws attention to the ecological effects of mining in its propaganda (Holden and Jacobson, 2012).

Perhaps the consummate example of neoliberal triumphalism was the infamous essay “The End of History” written by Francis Fukuyama in 1989. In that essay, Fukuyama (1989: 12) declared Maoism to be “an anachronism” and made much out of communism’s (supposed) failure and capitalism’s (supposed) triumph. The time period since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has not been a fertile period for Marxian thought. Nevertheless, armed revolutionary communism endures in Bicol. This article argues that an armed communist insurgency does not continue in Bicol despite neoliberalism but because of neoliberalism. One of the principal reasons for the continued existence of an armed communist insurgency in a neoliberal world is the reduction in the living standards of the poor emanating from neoliberalism. As Rodriguez (2010: xviii) wrote, “The difficulty of everyday life for the working classes and the poor compel many to join up with militant leftist movements, both legal and underground, to contest the state’s neoliberal orientation.”

Neoliberalism may have achieved the status of a hegemonic discourse but standing in contradistinction to hegemonic discourses are counter-hegemonic discourses. In discussing neoliberalism’s status as a hegemonic discourse, Watts (2007: 275) posed the question, “from what sources, then, are counter-hegemonic responses to appear, and what might resistance to neoliberalism possibly consist of at this point?” An answer to this is Maoism, which “has been able to speak to the concerns of the oppressed and dissatisfied in quite distinct contents” (Healy and Knight, 1997: 5). In Bicol the NPA provides a counter-hegemonic discourse and provides a vehicle for the expression of concerns going unheeded. As the world progresses further into the twenty-first century, Maoism will persist in places such as Bicol. The poverty and social exclusion aggravated by neoliberalism will fuel Maoism in such places and one will find evidence for the statement made by Marks (1996: 2) declaring, “Revolutionary wars which look to the Maoist model are not going to disappear.” History has not ended.



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[1] “Katipunan” is short for Kataastaasan Kagalang-galang na Katipunan nang mga Anak ng Bayan (Highest and Most Venerated Association of the Children of the Nation).

[2] Pacific Strategies and Assessments measures NPA activity by monitoring “incidents” of NPA activity in each province; surrenders of NPA members, detections of NPA camps, NPA attacks upon the facilities of private corporations, or confrontations between the NPA and the AFP.

[3] The Philippines are divided by the Local Government Code (Republic Act 7160) into provinces, municipalities, cities, and barangays. Cities are, essentially, a variant of a municipality and for the purposes of this article “municipality” and “city” are treated interchangeably.

[4] This interview was conducted on an undisclosed date, in an undisclosed location, in Bicol during 2009.

[5] Karapatan” is the Tagalog word for “right.”

[6] This interview was conducted on an undisclosed date, in an undisclosed location, in the Philippines during 2010.


To cite this article

Electronic reference 

William N. Holden. «Deep roots of revolution: the new people’s army in the Bicol region of the Philippines». Canadian journal of tropical geography/Revue canadienne de géographie tropicale [Online], Vol. (2) 2. Online in November 15, 2015, pp. 01-14. URL:



HOLDEN William N.
Department of Geography
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Volume 2, Issue 2
ISSN 2292-4108