MOUNT DIWATA, Philippines — Too poor to afford school beyond fourth grade in the southern Philippines, 19-year-old Johnny Buyo walked away from home six months ago to join the communist rebellion — one of Asia’s longest-running. He was handed a rusty M16 rifle, which he vowed to keep for life.
The teenager recently gathered with an older generation of battle-hardened veterans in their 60s for a celebration marking the 42nd anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose insurgency withstood decades of crackdown by five Philippine presidents.
"It’s scary at first but later, you gain confidence when you think that you’re fighting for the people," said Buyo, the rifle slung on his tiny frame.
Amid a Christmas cease-fire and looming peace talks with President Benigno Aquino III’s new government, about 80 Maoist guerrillas armed with rifles and grenade launchers marched in a remote rice-farming village in the foothills of Mount Diwata in southern Surigao del Sur province as more than 2,000 villagers, relatives and sympathizers cheered.
Persistent poverty in the Philippines’ southern region fuels popular support for the movement, inspiring new generations to join even as Cold War communist insurgencies fade into memory across much of the rest of the world.
It has been 38 years since Jorge Madlos, then a student activist, quit university and went underground after then-Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Now 62, the prominent rebel spokesman — distinguished by his trademark Mao-style cap and goatee — says only one thing can make him leave his comrades.
"Our retirement comes in death," Madlos said.
At Sunday’s ceremony, smiling guerrillas handed out 2011 calendars, red pins and packs of roasted pork and rice. They belted out nationalist songs on a stage in a rice field festooned with the hammer and sickle communist symbol. Relatives and friends used the occasion for reunions with rebels, including a mother who said she has not seen her son since he joined the guerrillas 10 years ago.
The chaotic scene under a broiling noontime sun both depicted the rebels’ resiliency and constraints.
Army troops kept watch less than a mile (two kilometers) away, stopping vehicles and writing down the names of truckloads of people entering a narrow dirt road leading to the rebel event. Undeterred, they told soldiers they were going to a "peace forum."
Such a rare display of defiance and force by the rebels is played down by the military, which said that battle setbacks, surrenders, infighting and loss of foreign support have reduced the guerrilla force to less than 5,000 from a peak of 25,000 in the 1980s.
Not strong enough to face military tanks and aircraft, the rebels now rely on hit-and-run ambushes. They operate a shadow government in areas under their influence, dispensing justice including trials — and sometimes executions — of erring policemen and village officials. The rebels also collect "revolutionary taxes" — and punish business establishments refusing to pay.
With the emergence of a popular, reformist Philippine president who has started to tackle poverty, the rebels now risk becoming irrelevant, government chief negotiator Alexander Padilla said last week. He cited the example of some former rebels from the same force and other hard-line communists who took their cause to Congress as elected representatives.
Padilla said he and rebel representatives have agreed to resume talks in February in Norway, which has facilitated the peace process. The rebels walked away from peace talks brokered by Norway in 2004, suspecting then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government of instigating their inclusion on U.S. and EU terrorist lists.
Padilla credited the apparent progress to this year’s landslide election victory of Aquino, the son of revered democracy icons. Aquino has begun grappling with pervasive government corruption and human rights violations blamed on state security forces that have helped fuel the insurgency, Padilla said.
But the guerrillas said that Aquino still has a lot to prove.
"Despite the peace talks, we will go on with the revolt," Madlos told journalists in this farming village about 530 miles (860 kilometers) southeast of Manila.
"Aquino is not popular in our bases," he said.
Some residents disagreed, even though there was little doubt about their loyalty in this rebel stronghold where houses are bedecked with paper streamers praising the revolution and New People’s Army.
"I voted for Noynoy. He’s kind," said 44-year-old housewife Lita Larowa, using Aquino’s popular nickname.
But she said the rebels were her "heroes, for fighting for the legions of poor people like me." She refused to call them terrorists.
Another young rebel, who gave her name as Ka (Comrade) Irene, wished Aquino would fulfill his campaign promises to improve lives of the poor.
She said her rebellion was justified because massive poverty was still afflicting the country.
"I don’t have dreams anymore," the 21-year-old, ponytailed rebel said, when asked if she planned to leave the mountains someday and rejoin her family.
Madlos said he was happy seeing a new generation take up the fight as veterans like him begin to fade.
"They ensure that this revolution will continue," he said.