EXPERIENCE: Holiday with the Guerrillas in the Philippines

EXPERIENCE: Holiday with the Guerrillas in the Philippines
Credit: Sergi Reboredo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

What you need to know

A contributor spends some quality time with the Marxist guerrillas in the Philippines celebrating the most important time of the year: Mao's birthday.

Dear reader,

Allow me to indulge myself. Permit me to share with you a most memorable holiday season from several years ago.

I offer an account surrounding my time in the mountains of Cordillera on the Philippine island of Luzon with the guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA).

At this time many guerrilla fronts gear up for the festive season, only not for Christmas but the day after to celebrate the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which coincides with the anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth: Dec. 26, 1893.

Mao is not revered as a god or a savior by the guerrillas, but his teachings act as a guide to action that propelled the reestablishment of the CCP and the eventually the people’s army.

Nice People Around (NPA)

Along with some visitors to the guerrilla front, we arrived in the dead of night on Christmas evening after a 17-hour bus ride in the capital of one of Cordillera region’s provinces. I believe Cordillera is the most stunning locale in the country by far, and the next few months would only reinforce that impression. Pine trees glistened with precipitation. Landscapes cascaded over thick puffs of fog. Rice terraces, a wonder in themselves, offered amazing views of the mountain ranges.

After being driven a few more hours by some locals supportive of the rebels, we stopped at a solitary shack on the side of the road. It was dawn, and a lone NPA combatant with an AK-47, a green jacket and a classic Mao cap was standing right in front of us. A few moments later, 10 more emerged from the cliff side. They signaled that I continue with them on foot as the pickup truck we rode on disappeared back the way we had come.

I was immediately taken aback by the altitude. The air was the thinnest I had ever breathed – being a heavy smoker, this was no small adjustment. We hiked for a few hours with great difficulty until we reached a remote village of only eight houses. I met all the members of the guerrilla unit and true to their moniker, they were plain "Nice People Around." To a man, they shook the visitor’s hands enthusiastically, some offering boisterous greetings.

The CPP anniversary and Mao’s birth is celebrated widely among NPA guerrilla fronts nationwide, some big and some small, depending on the situation. Last year’s peace assembly in the southern part of the country drew in thousands of red fighters in full display, attracting crowds from all over the country following an open call to celebrate with them. Now that the peace talks with the revolutionary movement have been canceled by the Duterte administration, I suspect such open celebrations will not be seen in the near future.

I had been to similar celebrations before in other provinces. Like this one, they were simply organized, consisting of a crowd of about a hundred souls huddled together to watch a program of NPA soldiers discussing the themes of the anniversary. This time, a black taffeta cloth with chalked lettering of event slogans served as the backdrop and stage. Interspersed were cultural performances from both comrades and the locals conveying different facets of the armed revolution. The people’s army is a cultural one.

Towards the end, the last speaker, the lone red fighter who we first encountered on the road, signaled that we would now proceed to the second part of our celebration. Second part? This was new.

Gongs appeared from the crowd and the group broke into dance. The traditional dances of the Igorot (the dominant indigenous group of the region) were infectious and revolutionaries, peasants and visitors danced in a circle for a couple of hours at least.

The next day I was issued a rifle by one of the senior commanding officers. He was a local, born and raised in the notoriously tough terrain of the Cordillera mountains. Middle-aged yet full of brawn, he clearly had been baptized in the smoke of firefights. He gave me a quick lesson in the dos and don’ts of how to handle the weapon and the environment, ending with a smirk as if to say “you’ll get the hang it.”

It was an M-16 from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, part of a cache seized in a raid or encounter with the enemy. I had pledged to clean it, inspect it and study it, as was expected of everybody else.

Guerrilla march

After the festivities, we were whisked off to our next destination as mobile guerrilla warfare dictates. They were all eager to get back to work. Besides my rifle, I carried a pack which bore my personal belongings, a blanket, emergency noodles, an emergency can of sardines and political documents that were used in meetings, assemblies and discussions.

I wore two pairs of socks over each other with my feet stuffed into large boots, two shirts under a sweater, a jacket and a cap, but I was still freezing. All in all I was carrying about 30 kilos – a modest load. I tried my best to keep my composure and not clumsily ruin the NPA’s reputation.

During my first regular trek, we encountered some locals farming on the hillside. They were met by an armed platoon of men and women marching in single file all dressed in black (a simple form of camouflage) and instead of being frightened, they were all smiles. The Igorot people always greet you in the warmest manner.

They say compared to the rest of the country, Cordillera was less influenced by Spanish colonialists despite their 300-year reign, but more by the Americans who set up several bases in the mountains. In one of the villages I encountered a man wearing a cowboy hat and boots complete with spurs. He brandished a guitar and sang “home on the range” perfectly with his best southern accent.

During my stay, we were never in direct combat. We came close, but the locals led the military away when we stayed in a village to avoid civilian casualties. Besides, most everyone says that the military at that period mainly stayed in their camp in the capital, too lazy to deal with the terrain just to be harassed by locals and rebels.

In the mountains is where I learned to walk. We walked everywhere, for hours on end to achieve certain tasks, mainly to organize peasants, engage or assist in agricultural production, establish greater political consciousness for the revolution, plan for better agrarian practices and facilitate literacy programs. One time we trekked for several hours just for an all-night discussion with some farmers who had just finished working in the fields. A tough day’s work and they were still ready to learn about the revolution well into the midnight hour.

Another time, three of us carried a generator over a mountain from one village to the next just so people could watch movies. We screened documentaries on the poverty blighting the country, updates about the revolutionary war elsewhere, local progressive cinema and even foreign films like “Even the Rain” starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which depicted uprisings of national minorities in Bolivia. We did our best to translate for the locals from the subtitles.

The comrades were full of advice: give up on anticipating a flat path, straighten your body to distribute the weight of your load, walk with heels hitting the ground first so your boots get a firm grip on the earth, crumple your toes when descending and alternate your breathing between the nose and the mouth.

One particularly tiring climb was made even more difficult by thick fog. I wondered how it could be this dense in the afternoon. It was quickly made apparent how I misread the situation; This isn’t fog comrade, these are clouds.”

The generosity of the people we met knew no bounds. Mao Zedong said: “The masses are the real heroes. Without the people, the revolutionary army is nothing.” Always when arriving at a village, we made our rifles discreet, introduced ourselves and asked politely if we could stay for a while. We shared food, stories and shelter. All members of the platoon were enjoined to help out with daily chores and concerns or risk being reprimanded. We were reminded that discipline when serving the people should be ironclad.

It might sound strange how or why an army unit is doing this. But it makes perfect sense given that one of the tasks of the revolution is to re-shape the notion of what an army is meant to be. Instead of being a purely military entity like its counterpart, the people’s army protected the masses and was a force for political, economic and cultural development.

Our platoon, like many across the country, was a melting pot of backgrounds. Some were like me, coming from an urban background and educated at a university. Others were impoverished locals who’d grown up dreaming of one day linking with the revolutionary army. There were also workers who’d been organized in unions and had subsequently joined the NPA.

Trials and travails came and went along the way, as seems normal when you are constantly with a group of people with different backgrounds facing uncertain and stressful situations. But we all managed to get along — the work was more important than any of us.

One comrade remarked, “It might sound harsh, and I mean this in the nicest way possible. Our revolution is not an orphanage. We may care for each other but ultimately we are here to contribute and to sacrifice.”

For many in the platoon, especially the more senior comrades, leaving the mountains to retire or “rejoin civilization” simply did not occur to them. “Live in the city? And do what?” said one. The majority of their lives had already been spent, molded to the environment at hand.

We all survived on a diet consisting mostly of sweet potatoes and vegetables, making our meals wherever we stopped, yet poverty was palpable in every household we saw. Hardly any had any form of schooling, no clinics were ever seen (our medic always had her hands full) and due to the backwardness of the agricultural production, harvests usually came just once a year.

Sweet potatoes go a long way in these areas. I once had boiled sweet potato for dinner in a local’s home. He egged me on by saying that we were to enjoy a mouth-watering dessert, building up suspense as we sat by the fire. Turns out the dessert was sweet potato again, except with brown sugar. We both laughed and I admired how he and all the others endured (though I have always really liked sweet potato).

Getting Closer

I left the guerrilla front with a heavy heart. I could have extended my stay, it was encouraged in fact. I find that my personal nature directs me to make decisions with an all or nothing attitude. If I was to stay, it would have been permanent, something which I was not ready to handle at that point.

I wondered if I was less revolutionary than I had thought myself to be, maybe so. In order to advance to victory, we must give everything we can, which in the end may not be enough. We can only hope that what we are able to contribute increases over time. Cordillera has not left me and I am convinced that we will one day be reunited.

Cordillera has not left me and I am convinced that we will one day be reunited.

Dear reader, I could go on. If you’d be interested, I would like nothing more than to elate your mind about the entirety of the people’s resistance and movement. Nonetheless, I am exhausted.

Before you leave, please know this, so that my intentions cannot be mistaken. I do not condone this type of storytelling for the sake of storytelling. Spending the holiday season and beyond in the red areas of the countryside is an unparalleled and recommended experience for learning and contributing to the tide of revolt. You’re welcome to stay, preferably for as long as you can. In Mao's words: “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.”

Many believe that the conditions for an uprising are becoming riper by the day. President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a number of steps towards establishing a totalitarian government, one that is not unlike that of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

They say Marcos was the “number one recruiter for the NPA” because his draconian regime reflected the futility of the current ruling system of landlords, compradors, cronies and capitalists. Predictably, Duterte looks poised to “recruit” even more.

No doubt all this will speed up the process of dismantling the ruling order. It will also bring about scores of new and bold tales of struggle and optimism. Dear reader, someday I hope we’d share more stories over a campfire, in the heat of revolutionary ferment.

Editor: TNL Staff