The name of my hometown, Lianga, has been in the news quite a lot in the past few weeks and usually in connection with news reports of violent clashes between government military forces and communist insurgents belonging to the New People's Army. My friends from other places are all asking the same question. "What the hell is exactly going on there?"
Of special significance are two recent news stories, one concerning the Dec. 2 ambush by NPA guerrillas of a truck carrying Army personnel in Sitio Bantolinao in Barangay Ganayon just five kilometers outside of Lianga which resulted in the death of five soldiers and the wounding of two others. Another news item came out about a week later about a fierce encounter between government forces and communist rebels in the hinterlands of Barangay Diatagon in the north of the town where both sides claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on the other. This is despite the absence of confirmed reports on the actual casualty count.
And yet even before that, intermittent reports hinting at the intensification of military operations in many areas of Surigao del Sur and the Lianga area have filtered through the national news media together with an apparent increase in the number of news accounts of attacks and ambuscades executed by NPA forces against government military and police units in the field particularly in the neighboring provinces of Compostela Valley, Agusan del Sur and Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur. What the hell is going on, indeed?
Ordinarily, the renewed and strengthened counterinsurgency drive against the New People's Army and their base areas in the remote and forested parts of the aforementioned provinces could be justified in terms of the government's legitimate exercise of its inherent police power. To hunt down insurgents and weaken, if not eliminate, the communist insurgency and thus insure peace and order and foster political stability in the target areas are clearly part of its primary responsibilities.
But after so many years of apathy and indifference and allowing the New People's Army to build, strengthen and expand its areas of influence in the Caraga region, one wonders why the government and the military establishment has suddenly gotten the urge at this very time to beef up its forces and reclaim areas of the countryside it had virtually ceded to the insurgents because of their own negligence and inaction over the decades. Why choose to fight now when the insurgent forces already have the strategic advantage in their own base areas because of their loyal mass base and the fanatical support among the rural poor they have built up through the years. Why attack now when rebel guerrillas often enjoy significant tactical military superiority because of their mastery of the local topography and their often far more effective combat intelligence network.
And why employ a purely military strategy at fighting an insurgency that has survived decades of military and police offensive action when a more comprehensive approach to counterinsurgency operations would surely be far more effective in the long run. Such an approach would also include identifying and addressing the root causes of the discontent among the rural folk and a genuine effort at restoring their faith in the legitimate government. This is a process that may take years, even decades, but surely such a farsighted, multi-pronged approach is more certain to succeed and less wasteful of human life and the government's meager resources than the attack and retreat, retaliate and interdict tactics employed by the armed forces today.
It is clear that the reason for the increased military presence in Lianga and in many other parts of the Caraga region goes far beyond the legitimate desire of the current government leadership to incapacitate, if not eliminate, the various rebel guerrilla fronts and insurgent forces that operate in these areas. The greater reason lies in the fact that in today's shrinking world and globalized economy, there is already a mad scramble for access to rapidly disappearing mineral and forest resources and the Caraga region happens to be mineral rich particularly in nickel, gold and coal deposits. It also possesses one of the few remaining stretches of virgin timber forests in the country.
The opening of that part of the country by the government to large scale mining and logging operations and the fact that the areas where these many mineral and forest resources are found roughly correspond to the areas where the communist revolutionary forces happen to operate and, therefore, have vested political and economic interests to protect is the real reason for the escalation of armed hostilities there.
Multi-million dollar industrial investments cannot be made in areas where such investments can be put at risk and be held hostage by indigenous rebel forces who surely will not just idly stand aside and be driven, without protest, out of what are obviously valuable pieces of real estate and potentially a rich source of "revolutionary taxes". So the military is called in to establish a strong presence in these locations and to conduct "clearing" and "pacification" operations, hopefully paving the way for the entry of investors eager to reap the benefits of the commercial exploitation of these resource rich areas at the soonest possible time.
But as contemporary history has shown, the government cannot just casually brush away an insurgency that has become deeply rooted in the land and its people for almost four decades now. It cannot, by military action alone, fight it and win such a fight with any decent chance of success. There are no shortcuts to fighting a well entrenched and flourishing insurgency. The loss of untold Filipino lives on both sides of the conflict as well as on non-combatants and civilians over the decades as a result from these military offensives which has actually achieved very little in the way of real and tangible political or military gains is clear proof of this fact.
So when my friends ask me what the hell is going on in Lianga nowadays, I tell them it is just the old story of greed and opportunism winning over common sense and right thinking. It is about seeking easy and convenient shortcuts to the solving of problems that demand and require plenty of time and a broader perspective or approach. It is about choosing expediency and quick solutions over the need for persistence and hard work.
And when the government and our political leaders choose to go with the former over the latter and when the problems they are dealing with are those that deal with the political, economic and social rifts that currently divide sectors of Philippine society, then the consequences of inevitable failure can be catastrophic. This is why Lianga has been recently in the news and no one from there, myself included, is, in any way, pleased with the kind of publicity our town is getting.