‘Declare NPA rebels unwelcome in Baguio’
Baguio City had always been considered a peace zone, but Mayor Benjamin Magalong on Thursday was asked to declare the communist New People’s Army (NPA) persona non grata, like in many cities in the country.
During a briefing for Agriculture Secretary William Dar, the Cabinet officer for peace and security in the Cordillera, local government and military officials gave an outline of the counterinsurgency and economic programs for the region.
But Dar said he saw poverty, not insurgency, as the bigger problem, and crushing the 50-year-old NPA in the Cordillera would require the government to improve the quality of life in at least 47 villages considered as “rebel influenced.”
These villages in Abra, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga have been frequented by rebels or have residents suspected of supporting the NPA.
When asked if a ceasefire with the rebels can be pursued under the government’s “Whole of Nation Approach” policy to resolve insurgency, Dar, a former university professor, said he preferred dialogues to convince rebels to surrender and join mainstream society.
Enforced by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, the policy requires government agencies to focus their programs on the NPA.
But Baguio would be key to these programs if it no longer welcomed rebels, said Maj. Gen. Pablo Lorenzo, commander of the Army’s Fifth Infantry Division.
Throughout five decades of clashes, both government and NPA have respected Baguio as a “white zone” where no clashes take place, said Magalong, a retired police general who joined the briefing as chair of the Cordillera peace and order council.
“Rebels spent their R&R (rest and recreation) here,” he said.
Blocking their access to Baguio would have a strategic and a psychological impact on the armed rebel movement, Lorenzo said, adding that 27 towns in Abra province and seven towns in Kalinga province had declared the NPA as persona non grata.
It was not clear whether such a declaration in Baguio would make a distinction between the armed rebels and leftist groups based in the city.
These groups had brought attention to issues like indigenous peoples’ rights and Cordillera autonomy shortly after strongman Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a people’s uprising in 1986.
The briefing also centered on marijuana cultivation which Magalong said had been financing rebel activities in the Cordillera.
According to him, rebels take 30 percent of marijuana profits, given that the illegal weed used to be abundant in outlying and uninhabited Cordillera outskirts.
This matter was raised because of pending bills in Congress that would legitimize marijuana cultivation for medical purposes.
Marijuana production areas have since dwindled due to the crackdown of the police and the military, Magalong said, adding that Cordillera officials would adjust should Congress pass the measure harnessing the weed for treating ailments.
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