GUINSAUGON, Philippines (KHNL)- Be careful if you're going to the Philippines. That's the latest US State Department travel warning for Americans.
The US government says terrorist groups, including Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are planning multiple attacks throughout the Philippines. But it was the communist "New People's Army" that was an issue when videojournalist Tim McRobert and I were there on assignment last week.
Soldiers guard the door outside the rural health clinic where a team of Hawaii medical staff is working on a volunteer mission, tending the sick in the poor village. Some of the people have lingering health problems caused by the February 17 mudslide.
But this is also rebel country for a communist group called New People's Army, or NPA. We're using still photos because, we're glad to say, we DID NOT see any rebels.
Major Jose Lim of the Philippines National Army calls the NPA a "terrorist group. If they see an important (event), then maybe they might take a hostage. That's why we're here to give you security."
National police, or soldiers from the Philippine Army, escorted us everywhere- on the road, and on foot. Even when Tim and I left the clinic to shoot other stories, we had an escort.
Hilo woman Day Day Hopkins of the Hawaii-based Congress of Visayan Organizations was part of the medical mission. She arranged the transportation for the group and says, "The escort we had from Sogod to St. Bernard and the people protecting us at the clinic is to make sure we're protected against insurgency."
Lim says the NPA is a "violent group, an armed group." He says "last week we engaged them. One body count."
NPA is a Maoist group formed in December 1969 with the aim of overthrowing the government through guerrilla warfare. Their main targets are government workers.
Chief Hector Enage of the National Police says the NPA mainly "raids municipal halls or police stations to embarrass the government."
But Hopkins, who grew up in the Visayas area of the Philippines, says civilians can get hurt, too. "They are willing to kill, to hurt ordinary people. They go out and threaten them. They say to help them and if they don't help, they're going to do something to you physically."
Lim says sometimes the violence isn't so random: "They implement their revolutionary tax. If you aren't paying the tax you'll suffer."
Most of our travel companions were not worried, and the locals definitely weren't. They say the chances of a rebel attack are low. But as Hopkins says, a little precaution didn't hurt. "It could happen. You'll never know. The mentality of the people here is if it happens, it happens. The probability of it happening could be remote, but that remote percentage could be a big thing if it happens."
Although primarily a rural-based guerrilla group, the NPA has an active urban infrastructure. It's estimated to have several thousand members.