Insurgency in the Philippines

History: The Huk Rebellion

The Philippines is socially and geographically fragmented, its terrain is nearly all mountainous and it is made up of 7,100 islands, within which live more than one hundred tribal groups who speak seventy different languages. These Factors and a history of peasant revolts are important in understanding the problem of insurgency which has faced many Filipino governments.

To understand the insurgencies it is helpful to look at the peasant rebellion called the ‘Huk’ Rebellion, which took place in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The rebels lived in central Luzon, the largest and most populated island of the Philippines. They were mainly peasant farmers known as Kasama who divided their harvest with their landlord. It was this tenant / landlord system, which was the root of the rebellion, and the system still causes unrest today. After the Second World War the relationship between tenant and landlord started to shift from a paternalistic one to a more business like and exploitative one. American farming methods started to make the local agriculture more commercialised and farmers started to use expensive insecticides and fertilizers which in turn lead them to become dependant on money lenders.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941 most of the wealthy landowners became pro Japanese, while the resistance the Hukbalahap was mainly main up of peasants.  In the aftermath of the war two elite groups developed in Filipino politics, those who had collaborated (Aquino’s faction) and the pro Americans (Marcos Faction). When the Americans liberated the Islands they turned against the Hukbalahap, disarming them and victimising them. As one Filipino said  “ At first the end of Japanese occupation was like a sunrise on a clear warm morning, but the sun wasn’t coming up after all, it was going down, things got worse, not better” (The Huk Rebellion, B.J Kerkvliet, 1977) . The Americans didn’t trust the Hukbalahap since they were not under American control and thought them ‘Tainted with communism”, the political elites and landowners saw the former resistance as a threat and the USAFFE guerrillas saw them as rivals. This lead to rebellion in 1946, with the Peoples liberation army (HMB) or ‘Huks’ fighting to bring about agrarian reform and stop oppression. The HMB also had an alliance with the Philippines communist party the PKP. The Huk rebellion reached its peak in 1951, and then it waned and faded. The villagers had grown weary of fighting and Col E Lansdale’s psychological warfare team had carried out a successful attempt to win ‘Hearts and minds’ by using HMB losses to shed doubt on the ability of the rebellion to succeed. The Army also became more selective in its actions and government officials started to pay some attention to the peasants’ problems.

A change of Power

President Marcos had at first been seen as an enlightened government but by the 1970’s he had clearly become a dictator. In February 1986 Corazon Aquino came to power and immediately lifted the restrictions on civil and public liberties, and released political prisoners including the communist leaders imprisoned under Marcos’ regime. She did inherit the problem of the communist New Peoples Army or NPA which had a modest growth in strength during Aquino’s first two years in power. For the NPA the overthrow of Marcos was a mixed blessing and can be compared with the overthrow of Diem’s government in South Vietnam in 1963, which like Marcos’s down fall was marked by increased communist influence and coup attempts, but unlike the Generals that followed Diem, Aquino was and remained hugely popular. Under the Marcos regime the Filipino army which was renown as one of the most incompetent in the world, had resorted to systematic violations of human rights, killing were often carried out by government sanctioned vigilante groups. These groups did not disappear under the Aquinos government; in fact in 1987/88 the government committed as many human rights violations as the Marcos regime had.  The vigilante groups were made up of mainly religious cults and landowners, such as ‘Rock Christ’ and the ‘The Lord of the Sacred Heart’ also known as Chop-Chop due to their habit of mutilating communists with machetes. The army quickly returned to its old revenge tactics, feeling the government had gone soft on the insurgents; Aquino needing the Army’s support was powerless to stop them.

The communist insurgents

The communist insurgency of the 1990s has its roots in the Huk rebellion as the remains of the Huk helped form the military wing of the communists, the NPA in the 1960’s. In 1967 the communists spilt with the old PKP still remaining Marxist-Leninist and the new faction the CPP being Maoist and coming to represent the aspirations of those at the bottom of the social pile, with the Maoist doctrines heavily altered to fit the Philippines. This spilt happened at the height of the Sino-Soviet split and was influenced by it.  After 1971 the CPP openly aligned with Moscow while the CPP aligned with the Chinese but got little from the Chinese and by the late 1970s it was not even receiving verbal support. The Russians did little for there faction neither of the big powers was bothered with the Philippines with other more urgent areas to support. The CPP formed its military wing the NPA in 1968 which was popular at first among the poor as it not only fought but taught new skills such as herbal medicine, irrigation and introduced some land reform into areas they strongly held. By 1990 the PKP had renounced insurrection and had become a quasi-legal political party with about 5,000 members.

The outlawed CPP meanwhile pursed its guerrilla war; in 1990 they were estimated to have 18,000-23,000 full time insurgents. Politically they see the Philippines as a semi colonial society ruthlessly exploited by the US. Their anti Marcos-US stance became an anti Aquino-US stance. On the military front they were firm believers in the Maoist principle of a protracted war. They claim that the Huk rebellion failed because it failed to spread beyond Luzon, which they have done with bases in the Bicol Peninsula, Samar Island and Mindanao. They have recognised that the concept of having one liberated area from which their army could expand and seize the cities was impractical in the Philippines, so they based their strategy on the idea of a simultaneous insurrection in all the major islands. They have supported peasants in disputes with the government, such as the prevention of the government dam building project in the Cordillera Mountains, which would have made thousands of Kalunga tribesmen homeless in 1974.

Government efforts against them in the 1970’s did little to slow their growth despite having leaders captured and a major counterinsurgency operation mounted against them. Why? Because of their de centralised command, so that the loss of leaders didn’t affect them much and they have used the mountainous terrain to good effect. The Armies preoccupation with the Moro insurgency has also helped. In 1983 they were estimated to have 6,000 regulars but by 1986 this had grown to 22,500 with 20% of villages under their control. But with President Marcos gone the communists lost their main recruiter, the CPP called for a boycott of the 1986 election, many local groups refused and the CPP drifted into collaboration with the Aquino government. This fell apart in 1987 and the struggle was renewed. With a popular President in power support in urban areas fell, and by 1991 they had 18,000 insurgents and falling. NPA assassination teams called “Sparrow teams” started to target US servicemen in 1989/90 but this lost them yet more support.

The CPP got $9 million annually in the 1980’s from foreign supporters but had to rely on captured weapons. Two Chinese arms shipments in 1972 and 1974 were intercepted and Chinese aid stopped in 1975. Most of their money came from tithes in areas they controlled, little more than protection money and as one author put it “The NPA has developed rather like the Mafia in classical Sicily, as an alternative police force or government” (World Conflicts, Patrick Brogan 1992)

Muslim insurgency; The Moros

After Aquino came to power Muslim insurgents in the south threatened to resume their armed struggle for independence or autonomy.  Political manoeuvring, Moro factionalism and decreased foreign support have reduced the chances of an open Muslim rebellion. The Moros have a long history of insurgency dating back to Spanish rule, particularly among the Muslim population of southern Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.  The 1960’s saw increased political disputes and feuds between gangs become more violent with the long-standing tensions between Muslim and Christian communities over land and power also increasing. This was due to immigration of Christians from the north putting greater pressure on resources causing the Moros to fear becoming a minority in their own land. The Moros traditionally carry weapons and when in 1972 the government tried to disarm them they became suspicious of the Marcos government and this lead to open revolt in 1972. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) managed to bring together all the Moro factions fighting for an independent Moro nation. They were inspired by Muslim nationalism in Indonesia and Malaysia. Money and weapons came form Libya and Malaysia with some training done in Libya.  The Arab states frequently threatened Marcos with oil embargoes.

At the peak of its power (1973-1975) the Bangsa Moro army field 30,000-60,000 full time fighters, forcing the Philippines army to deploy 80% of its forces to the region. Fighting was fierce and more conventional than operations against the communist and left 50,000 dead.  The government used political and economic concessions to cause factionalism within the Moros and Malaysia was persuaded to reduce arms shipments. By 1976 the movement had started to decline and this lead to the Tripoli Agreement in 1977 which promised autonomy but this was a token and soon broken. After this period the rebellion never regained its full force as traditional rivalries between tribal leaders weakened the Moros.  In 1987 the MNLF gave up its aim of independence but talks soon became deadlocked and 1988 saw some fighting. On 6th November 1990 the Aquino government announced the creation of a four province autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao. This was done without consulting the Moros and spilt the resistance into 3 factions. The MNLF based in the Sulu Islands, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF in Mindanao and a reformed version of the MNLF called the Moro Islamic Reformist group.  Clan warfare is rife and this has allowed the Army to reduce it s presence.  US withdrawal from the Philippines had no effect on the situation; the chances of full-scale hostilities are slim.


Peasant revolt is historically endemic to the Philippines despite the differing nature of the insurrections it is the relationship between the peasants, the elite and the military that remains the main cause of unrest. Luckily for the Philippines governments the nation has remained low on the list for any countries wishing to supply arms to the rebels and luckily for the rebels the US was frightened of any further involvement following Vietnam. Despite the end of the Marcos regime the insurgencies still rumble on and seem to do so unless the social and economic and political structure of the Philippines changes radically. “Philippine history shows that rebellions can be suppressed but rarely eliminated for long “ (Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines, R.J Kessler)

Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines, Richard J. Kessler, Yale, 1989 (240 pages).
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (23 July 2006), Insurgency in the Philippines,

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