MANILA, December 30, 2010 (AFP) – Communist insurgents in the Philippines have raised millions of dollars through extortion of businesses every year and now rely on the crime as their main source of funds, the military said Thursday.

Since 1998, the communists have raised 1.5 billion pesos (34 million dollars) from extortion and raked in 95.5 million pesos in the first 11 months of 2010 alone, said military spokesman Brigadier General Jose Mabanta.

However he said their 2010 profits would not match the 136 million pesos they raised through extortion in 2009, indicating that their influence may be on the wane, Mabanta told reporters.

“We perceive them to be less of a threat to security but the main point is they are now perceived more as a threat to development,” he said.

He warned that no matter how marginalized the communists become, the Philippines would always be perceived as “the sick man of Asia,” if it suffers from the stigma of being host to a left-wing rebellion.

Mabanta also expressed doubt that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) would agree to stop using extortion even if the government raises the issue in peace talks scheduled for early next year.

“It may be hard on their part to desist from extortion because these are the only fund sources that they get. They have lost their sponsors and their (donations) from external sources,” he said.

On Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino’s government denounced the communist rebels for extorting money from businesses, warning that the issue could affect the peace talks.

This threat came after seven mining firms in the southern island of Mindanao threatened to pull up due to demands by the CPP’s guerrilla arm, the New People’s Army (NPA) that they pay protection money or face attacks,

Earlier, the military accused the 4,700-member NPA of using a truce with government forces over the Christmas holidays to intimidate businesses into submitting to rebel extortion.

Mabanta said that mining firms, logging companies and plantations were the main targets of communist extortion efforts.

He said the single biggest amount, of 39.5 million pesos this year, came from the southern region of Davao where many plantations and mining companies operate.

The NPA has earlier said businesses operating in its zones of influence must pay “revolutionary taxes” that help fund the insurgency.

The communists began their Maoist uprising in 1969, and it is now one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies.