The Cordillera people's armed protest

Wednesday, June 2, 1999


The Cordillera people's armed protest

By Reihana Mohideen

MANILA — After driving for 22 hours, on narrow roads which cling to the sides of spectacular mountain ranges, we were greeted in the dead of night by armed fighters of the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA).

The journey was not yet over. With heavy packs on our backs, with only the light of a weak torch, we had to trudge another hour, down slippery slopes and across rice fields and shaky bridges slung high above raging rivers, before we reached the CPLA camp.

The people of the Cordillera are fighting for autonomy from the Philippines state, which they call "imperialist Manila". They are composed of various ethnic groups, including the Ifugao, Kalinga, Tingguian, Isneg, Bontok, Kankanacy and Ibaloi. The Cordillera people are also referred to as "Igorots" (people from the mountains).

The Cordillera people are an oppressed nationality. They inhabit a geographical region in the mountainous north whose economic and political centre is Baguio city, considered the summer capital of the Philippines. They speak different languages, which my companions from Manila did not understand (one pointed out that there were many words similar to Indonesian).

Most Cordillera live in extreme poverty. Agriculture is mainly subsistence farming, and there is little industrial development. The main industry is quarrying. In the camp, there were hardly any fresh fruits or vegetables. It was explained that it was hard to grow them in such a hostile and arid region. There were a few domesticated pigs and chickens. Some coffee is grown, but people don't have the money to take it to market.

There were no schools or hospitals, the nearest being several hours away, and the roads are barely passable. The Manila government has provided them with nothing.

The Cordillera people are extremely proud of the history of their struggle for self-determination: first against the Spaniards, who never conquered and colonised, unlike the rest of the Philippines; and now in the struggle for autonomy from Manila.

The CPLA is one of the main liberation movements fighting for self-determination. Also active in the region is the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) which is aligned with the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA).

There is also split-off from the CPLA, known as the Balweg faction after its leader Conrado Balweg, who is accused of making compromises with the Philippines government. The CPA has placed Balweg on a hit list of those who have committed "crimes against the people".

The demand for autonomy for the Cordilleras was put forward by a group of students in the early 1960s during the US-backed dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The demand was taken up by successive student leaders until it was adopted by a broad movement of the Cordillera peoples.

The movement coincided with the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Due to the influence of the CPP, the struggle in the Cordilleras was conducted along the lines of a "protracted people's war", a Maoist military schema.

Some of the heaviest fighting by the NPA forces against the Philippines army took place in the Cordilleras. After the rebellion which overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986, the newly elected regime of Cory Aquino was forced to accept a cease-fire. Autonomous regions in Mindanao (the southern Philippines island where the Moro national minority is conducting an armed agitation for a separate state) and the Cordilleras were incorporated into the 1987 constitution.

As a result, the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) was set up in 1987. The CAR was seen as a transitional body administering the Cordillera region in preparation for full autonomy. The CAR consisted of a Cordillera Regional Assembly, a legislative body and the Cordillera Executive Board as the executive arm.

It was during this period that the Cordillera leaders of the CPP-NPA split to form the CPLA and its political wing, the Cordillera Bodong Administration (CBA).

However, after almost 13 years, no substantial measures have been taken by Manila to implement genuine autonomy for the Cordillera peoples.

The CPLA-CBA seem to have decided on a political rather than a military strategy to rebuild a mass movement for genuine autonomy. A recent meeting of the CAR resulted in the sacking of the old executive board (appointed by the government) and the election of a new board consisting of several leading, battle-hardened cadre of the CPLA. These changes have resulted in leading military cadre being shifted into above-ground political work.

Cordillera Day, on April 24, was marked with a show of strength by the CPLA. Around 400 armed CPLA fighters marched into Baguio city for the first time since 1987. The right of the CPLA to bear arms was one of the gains won through the negotiations, but it still has to struggle to defend this right.

On April 23, the Philippines National Police (PNP) blockaded their units from coming into Baguio, insisting the fighters lay down their arms before marching into the city. The CPLA leaders refused, and a stalemate ensued. The PNP were heavily outnumbered. Eventually the police gave in and the CPLA was allowed to enter with its loaded weapons.

This resulted in a hue and cry by the local authorities. A special investigation has been launched into how the CPLA managed to enter Baguio in broad daylight, fully armed.

The government is insisting that the CPLA be integrated into the Philippines army. This will result in CPLA troops being under the command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and being deployed in other parts of the country. The CPLA leaders are insisting that the CPLA forces remain under their own autonomous command and be deployed only in the Cordilleras.

According to Arsendo Humiding, chief of operations for the CPLA and a former member of the CPP-NPA, the accords provide for a regional peacekeeping force in the Cordilleras. "The government wants the Philippines National Police to be this force. We want it to be the CPLA, under our command and stationed in the Cordilleras."

Because no genuine autonomy has been achieved after some 13 years of negotiations, Humiding said, "The military struggle is still an issue. It's still a form of struggle that we might continue. The government is now entertaining the Balweg faction, using the old tactic of divide and rule."

As for the pitfalls involved in negotiations, Humiding said that the CPLA follows the "principles of democratic centralism — majority rules. There is a constant process of consultation with our members as we negotiate. Our negotiating team only puts forward positions that we have already discussed and decided on. We have formulated some guidelines. We don't agree to anything outside these guidelines. Any compromises are taken back for discussion."

Cordillera Day was also marked by the announcement of fraternal relations between the CPLA/CBA and the Socialist Party of Labour (SPP). It was also announced that Mailed Molina, the head of the CPLA, and Abrino Aydinan, the chief executive of the CBA, had joined the SPP and been placed on the party's executive council.

A highlight of the Cordillera Day rally in Baguio city, attended by several thousand people, was a statement delivered by SPP chairperson Sonny Melencio. "The SPP recognises the right of nations to self-determination. We believe that the democratic revolution in the Philippines supposedly started by the 'people's power' revolution ... in 1986 could not be completed without genuine autonomy and development for the Cordillera nation", Melencio said.

"Genuine autonomy means the right of the Cordillera nation to have its own autonomous government and its own autonomous army. It means the right of the Cordilleras themselves to decide how to develop their resources and how to chart the future of their nation. It means preserving the egalitarian social relations that exist amongst the Cordillera people", Melencio continued.

In response to Melencio's speech, CPLA-CBA leaders stated: "The CPLA-CBA recognises the revolutionary socialist aims of the SPP, including its support for the self-determination struggles of national liberation movements like that of the Cordillera and Bangsa Moro nations. It is because of the recognition of the SPP for the need to attain genuine autonomy for the Cordilleras that the CPLA-CBA leadership accepts the invitation ... for our members and leaders to join the SPP. It is only in solid unity that our combined revolutionary forces can effectively wage the revolutionary socialist struggle to achieve genuine autonomy for the Cordillera peoples and a truly progressive social order for the rest of Philippines society."

The SPP has also agreed to join the CPLA negotiating panel in future negotiations with the Manila government.