Part 1: Reds at the gates
A capsule or two of an anti-hemorraghic medicine, 500 milligrams, is usually one of the items in the grab bag of a “Sparrow” or a “partisano” as locals would call them.
The medicine was used to help stop bleeding, especially from gunshots.
Usually a “he,” the Sparrow was known in the 1980s to the 1990s as Death reincarnate – romanticized by Communists and their supporters as bearers of “Red justice,” a “punisher for the oppressed,” and demonized by the military as an “assassin.”
Nothing more than a brainless gunslinger who kills on command.
Ka Ariel is one of the first batch of armed urban partisans deployed to execute “revolutionary justice” in the city.
Tall, fair-skinned, he was a “triggerman” or the lead partisan whose first shot at the target signals the killing sequence.
He remembers some of the wounded partisanos would take the capsule along with its foil cover in the heat of combat.
“Pati putos dala inum sa init sang inaway (They drink it without stripping off the aluminum foil strip),” he says with a slight chuckle.
They were called “sparrows” after the quick, ubiquitous, little birds commonly seen in the Philippines.
The sparrow is the former national bird before the monkey-eating eagle took the honor away.
There used to be a time in the 1990s, when democracy was restored in the Philippines after the EDSA 1 Revolution, that “sparrow” operations in Bacolod City were almost regular fare, a source of seeming entertainment for the then growing urban capital of Negros Occidental, the Philippines’ Sugarlandia.
Broadcaster Fred Salanga, one of the more popular radio announcers in Bacolod City, was a reporter during the 80s when former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s martial rule was in full swing.
He was already a commentator when Marcos was ousted by a civilian-backed coup d’ etat in 1986, a military action that swept to power Corazon Aquino, widow of slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Sr.
Salanga reported in the middle of a gunbattle between hundreds of New People’s Army guerrillas and the police when the rebels blocked the highway leading to the town and burned the town hall.
It was at the peak of the sugar industry’s dead season, August 1987.
The rebels also stole goods, including ice cream and food, from the cooperative store of Victorias Milling Company workers in the town.
“Some of the shoes the comrades got were either too small or too big for their feet or they got pairs that were all right or left,” a former Red fighter who became a government employee in the 1990s told this writer in Hiligaynon.
He did not know if the ice cream got eaten after three hours of running gunbattles that left at least 20 people dead or wounded.
The Manapla raid was one of the NPA’s military actions that gained international attention, reported through international wires and covered even by big US papers.
There were other “big” actions, too, including the daring raid on the detachment of the elite Scout Rangers and an Army detachment in the southern town of Candoni.
A former NPA commander once told this writer that Negros had one of the biggest rebel military formation in the country estimated to be around two battalions or at least 1,000 fighters.
While recent encounters between the Reds and soldiers usually take place in remote villages deep in the remaining forests of the island, there was a time in the 80s when the Communists have already taken combat to the urban centers.
“Red political power was already in the cities – Party membership had spread to offices, schools, communities, even within religious groups,” a former ranking cadre in the region told this writer in the 90s.
“First the Party then the Army,” was the principle behind the growth of the political and military power of the Communist Party and the NPA, its armed wing, he explained.
Since Jose Maria Sison “re-established” the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas to become the CPP in 1968, the Party had relied on this formula – build party branches, form a mass base, then grow armed strength.
Party literature define the branch as the “basic unit” of the underground movement, through which flow ideology-based directives and policies to be followed by the masses, described as its muscle, and the NPA as the executioner of Red political power.
In the late 1980s to the 1990s, the Party was drunk with its “delusions of victory,” believing that it was on the edge of winning its “national democratic revolution with a socialist perspective” even if it encountered a setback when the Party decided to boycott the 1986 snap elections called for by Marcos, the dictator.
Sparrow operations peaked in the post-Marcos years, especially under the Aquino I government.
It was part of the attempt to bring about an “insurrectionary situation” patterned after the tactic of the Bolsheviks in Russia that overthrew the rule of the czars.
Policemen, soldiers, suspected government agents were killed on the streets of Bacolod, then a growing urban center where hacendados or sugarcane planters wait for their canes to mature.
Even radio stations were not exempt. The NPA bombed the transmission towers of two local network affiliates whose announcers were deemed to be “propagandists” of the kaaway (enemy), particularly the Army.
When Aquino announced a land reform program, the Negros planters resisted.
They formed a paramilitary unit, the El Tigre, according to local reports. A Sugar Development Fund lien was imposed on milled sugar to finance paramilitary units. The military even allegedly hatched a campaign codenamed Oplan Diadem to “neutralize” reporters perceived to be propagandists of the Left.
Combat in the countryside intensified in the last three years of Cory’s presidency, fuelled by what the Left described as the worsening “poverty, landlessness and injustice” even under a condition of restored democracy.
Fighting intensified in the countryside, especially in the Sixth District of the province called the CHICKS area that refers to Candoni, Hinobaan, Ilog and Cauayan towns and the cities of Kabankalan and Sipalay.
Government statistics in the 80s to 90s indicate deep poverty and government neglect in this area.
When Aquino declared a “total war” policy in late 1986 on the heels of failed talks with the rebels and the kidnapping by the Communists of a Japanese, the CPP promptly replied with its own version of a “total people’s war.”
Negros was plunged in a state of conflict that to some observers was eclipsed only by the battles of World War II when the Japanese invaded and occupied the island.
The sub-village of Umas in the upland village of Sipalay City was one of the major battlegrounds in the government’s fight against the rebels.
Codenamed “Emporium” by the rebels and deemed to be impenetrable, it eventually fell to sustained military operations led by then Army Gen. Raymundo Jarque Sr. who eventually defected to the rebels.
Jarque headed the Negros Island Command with tens of thousands of soldiers, one of the largest Army formation stationed in one island in the 90s.
NICOM and Jarque led military operations codenamed Oplan Thunderbolt that broke the backbone of the Negros rebels but also led to the evacuation of civilians fleeing the fighting and bombings.
Wire agencies and foreign correspondents found their way to this sock-shaped island to cover Army operations and the host of stories these spawned.
Defense became the prime beat for reporters as the local press focused on the fighting and the humanitarian crisis in the hospitals and evacuation centers in Bacolod City.
Veteran reporter Dolly Yasa recalls the Air Force forward positioned six choppers at the NICOM headquarters in Bacolod – four UH1H Hueys and two MG520 Sikorskys – the Hueys mainly for troop transport and the more agile Sikorskys became designated gunships that provided close air support for ground troops.
Reporters were given seats in these choppers, prime observation posts to report from the frontlines, a practice that came before the US military’s embedding of journalists in its units in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Reporters slept inside the NICOM headquarters to avoid losing their seats and to be always around when fighting breaks out,” Dolly says.
The body count was on an almost daily basis, covered sometimes like a tennis match by local reporters, who sometimes deployed to the south to cover the armed clashes.
Jarque unleashed joint arms operations against the rebels who were strained to the limit, their military capability stretched, their mass base drained.
For the first time since democracy was restored, the NPA faced ground-air operations as Jarque combined soldiers on the ground combing known rebel lairs, gunships, and mobile fire from Howitzers that pounded the riverbanks where rebels would usually break camp.