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June 2, 2008 / calebdresser

Any nice people around? Echoes of the New People’s Army

A funny thing happened during one of our farmer visits. With the aid of a Tagalog translator, we had been learning about village life, farmer cooperatives, rice farming, and the other essentials of life in rural Luzon. As time passed, the subjects drifted, and one of the Americans started asking about government services – healthcare, schools, road building, and finally police presence. The sudden tension was astounding. The farmer’s face went blank; our translator laughed nervously, winked, and made as comic a show as he could of looking over both shoulders. In English he asked the farmer, “Any nice people around?” A hesitant smile came over the old man’s face, and he replied, with a shake of his head, “No permanent address.” In Tagalog, told us that there was no need for police in the village because they did not have crime or other problems. Another student quickly asked him about his family, and the moment passed.

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On the ride back to our lodgings, some explanations began to surface. “Nice People Around” and “No Permanent Address” were references to the New People’s Army, a leftist rebel group that has been operating in the Philippines for decades. Although the National Police and the Army control the cities, towns, and major roads, the sympathies of many people in rural areas lie more with the guerrillas in the mountains. In past years, when factories or mills were built in outlying areas, the welcome tour for new employees or visitors would include the best escape routes and the handful of concealed weapons caches on the premises – capitalist installations were sometimes attacked for refusing to pay “revolutionary tax.” Although times have improved in Nueva Ecijas, in other parts of the Philippines a village visit such as we had just made would have been too risky to undertake with students – kidnapping, carjacking, and demands for “revolutionary tax” are still common. Even with government efforts to help rebels settle as civilians, many rural areas remain a risky place for government-aligned people to operate, as former rebels have been settled in the country as farmers. Although researchers from the University of the Philippines are usually tolerated (many NPA leaders studied there), IRRI is persona non grata; it is seen as part of the establishment, and it does indeed have ties to aggressive capitalist entities such as the World Bank. The situation argues extreme caution, as many rebels also hold day jobs or do some farming when not with their band in the mountains. You can’t tell who is who.

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There is certainly more to the pleasant-looking little rice villages than one might think – someday I hope I can understand such places better. Nick noticed a shotgun in one of the tiny houses, and although I never felt unsafe, I did feel as though a lot was happening that I could not see. On the ride out I could not help staring at the not-too-distant mountains, blue and seemingly peaceful in the afternoon haze. It was my first time in a place where one man might kill another for his politics.

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2 Comments

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  1. Bengolas / Jun 3 2008 7:47 am

    I’m glad to read that you are well, Caleb! Try to stay that way. I’m glad to see that you are able to experience so much of the local culture. I am lacking a bit in that area, living in a tourist area of the park, but am becoming more integrated as time passes. Your photos are brilliant! I can’t take the time to read all in depth now, but I will eventually. Cheers!

  2. Margaret McCandless / Jun 4 2008 12:33 am

    Caleb & Ben – We readers want to know what both of you are seeing, learning, pondering. Thank you, Caleb. Teachers here tell me they are very glad to read your posts.
    If you find time, Ben, keep on leaving messages here on Caleb’s blog, or give us a link if you have a weblog, too. Which country are you in? Which climate in Africa?
    Good health, happiness, and progress, of a sustainable sort, to you both. M3

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