When Communist rebels waged a series of attacks in the middle of peace negotiations during the early years of the present administration, the then peace pact optimist President Duterte immediately cancelled all confidence-building measures with them—not even the traditional Holiday truce was honored.
Instead, security officials focused on aggressive military operations against the New People’s Army (NPA), and stepped up the campaign against the personalities whom the government tagged as having links with the Communist rebels.
Such aggressive operations were coupled with programs and projects to lure NPA fighters to return to the fold of the law, and the infusion of funds to make economic development felt at the barangay level—the purpose is to deny the insurgents the opportunity to take advantage of poverty and government neglect for their recruitment — and eventually clear them of NPA influence.
The barangay-level economic development is continuously being done through the Barangay Development Program (BDP) of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
Retired military chief of staff Hermogenes Esperon Jr., national security adviser and director general of the National Security Council, said the BDP is a socio-economic development program earmarked for areas cleared of the NPA wherein the inclusive major programs are farm-to-market roads, construction of school buildings, installation of water and sanitation systems and health stations and the launch of livelihood programs.
“These programs are precisely what formerly affected communities have asked for. In fact, these programs address issues commonly exploited by the NPA,” said Esperon.
Generals’ Pork Barrel?
In the past days, some groups and personalities raised allegations of possible misuse of the multi-billion BDP funds in preparation for the 2022 presidential elections, and even referred to it as the pork barrel of the generals.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite also said that the entire Davao region would receive P4.3 billion, with Davao City, the President’s hometown, getting P1.6 billion, or almost 40 percent of the fund allocated for the region.
In a statement issued on Saturday, Esperon belied all the allegations, and explained why Davao region and Davao City would be getting a huge chunk of the fund.
Of Geography and Demography
Davao City is the largest city in the country with the land area bigger than Metro Manila and Rizal province combined.
And while it is an independent city and serves as the tourism and economic center of the entire Mindanao, Esperon said Davao City is not as highly-urbanized as the cities in Metro Manila, and, in fact, maintains a typical rural scenery in most parts of the city. And despite its big land area, Davao City only has a population of 1.8 million people, or roughly equivalent to the population of the City of Manila.
“The fact remains that there are numerous isolated and remote barangays within the City. Hence, with the large land area of Davao City, there still is a need for development and infrastructure for the growth of the City,” said Esperon in a statement.
The Davao region, composed of four provinces, is characterized by mountain ranges with irregular plateaus and lowlands, according to Esperon. In other words, an ideal hiding place for Communist rebels.
The eastern part of Mindanao where the Davao region is located has long been considered as a stronghold of the NPA, and has been the battleground for heavy and bloody skirmishes between the rebels and security forces.
The NPA attacks include raids on police stations, burning of heavy equipment of construction firms contracted to build roads and bridges and even fatal ambushes of both soldiers and policemen. In the past, Communist rebels were also burning or bombing electric and telecommunication towers.
Esperon said that, of the five Regional Party Committees of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-NPA in Mindanao, four are located in eastern Mindanao.
He said two of the most active Regional Party Committees—the Southern Regional Party Committee and the Far South Regional Party Committee—are operating in Davao region.
The SMRC alone, according to Esperon, is composed of five sub-units or guerrilla fronts which continuously threaten Davao City.
“Of particular concern to our security forces is that within Davao City is an existing armed unit, the Pulang Bagani Command (PBC),” said Esperon.
He also revealed that 65 percent of the total strength of the NPA are based in Mindanao.
Guerilla Fronts Explained
Esperon said guerrilla fronts of the CPP-NPA aim to expand the influence and control over a population within a specified territory through a political structure and its armed elements.
Each territory, according to Esperon, consists of several municipalities straddling provincial and even regional boundaries. The territory of a Guerrilla Front has a tactical center located at the remote common boundary of several municipalities or provinces where the NPAs exerts total control of or influence on the population.
“Guerrilla Fronts are vital to the operations of the NPA, particularly in Davao Region. Guerrilla Fronts control access to barangays where they exert influence over, thereby preventing developmental projects from entering their strongholds,” said Esperon.
“This leads to a cycle of poverty, isolation, disease, hunger, and lack of educational and livelihood opportunities, thereby hindering growth and prosperity among the affected population,” he added.
Why BDP is Important in Mindanao
Esperon stressed that the dismantling of Guerilla Fronts necessitates a comprehensive process involving coordination between security operations and developmental intervention projects.
The official said the aggressive government intervention that includes the implementation of the BDP will continue to help dismantle guerrilla fronts.
In fact, he said that from 2016, a total of four Guerrilla Fronts were dismantled in Davao City, two in Davao de Oro, three in Davao del Norte and two in Davao Occidental and one in Davao del Sur.
“The BDP is envisioned with the end goal of bringing development to conflict-prone communities, the initiative under the Program aim to address the gaps identified by both the civilian agencies and the security sector in Davao,” said Esperon.
“The Left say we are favoring Davao City with more BDP funds compared to other regions. Truth is Mindanao was designated a priority for clearing operations because NPAs have grown so strong,” he added.
In fact, he said that it is only in Mindanao where the NPA maintains a CPP-NPA Territorial Commission.
Esperon said the construction of schools in Davao region is also important since the CPP-NPA has already set up schools in some parts of the region purposely to strengthen their recruitment efforts.
He tagged the Salugpungan Schools as an operating arm of the NPA to recruit indigenous children into armed conflict as child soldiers of the NPA.
“In fact, seven out of 10 NPAs in Eastern Mindanao are recruited from these Indigenous Peoples communities. Particular in Davao City is its need for school buildings to replace the Salugpungan Schools which operated as NPA schools,” said Esperon.
For the Davao region alone, Esperon said that more than 55 Salugpungan Schools.
Esperon said most of the barangays cleared from 2016 to 2019 were from Mindanao.
“So the BDP is currently in Mindanao, intended to develop formerly conflicted remote areas. Next year, most of the BDP will be for Bicol, Samar, Caraga and Western Visayas,” said Esperon.
“By transforming former areas of conflict, we are now one step closer to our collective aspiration as Filipinos for sustainable grassroots development and lasting peace,” he added.