Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Philippines President Aquino Flirts with Communist Peace

MANILA - Two months after Fidel Ramos was inaugurated as president of the Philippines in 1992, the government and the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) signed what is still considered the most important document in the now nearly 25-year-old peace process. The communist insurgency here, led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and waged by its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), recently entered a 42nd year and has been blamed by successive administrations for stunting the country's economic development.

In the so-called Hague Joint Declaration, both sides stipulated that the peace process which began in 1986 should be pursued to resolve the communist insurgency and achieve a "just and lasting peace". While talks stuttered and were eventually scuttled in 2004 under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, many observers believe a new round of negotiations led by President Benigno Aquino that opened this week in Oslo represent the best chance for peace in a long time. The declaration laid down a substantive agenda to be taken up during the negotiations, including issues related to human rights and international humanitarian law, socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and finally an end of hostilities and disposition of forces. The NDF, an umbrella organization of revolutionary groups including the CPP, has insisted that the agenda points be tackled one by one, in that particular order.

In 1998, the Ramos administration and the NDF signed the first agreement based on this agenda: the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. It was hailed at the time as a breakthrough, one that could potentially lead the way to a final peace agreement. Nearly 13 years later, both panels met on Tuesday in Oslo to restart formal negotiations and tackle the next item on the agenda: socio-economic reforms. Both sides have waxed optimistic about the resumption of negotiations. What they are not saying publicly, however, is that this agenda point could very well be the toughest part of the negotiations - one that could, in fact, make or break the whole peace process.

That's because the NDF's idea of socio-economic reform represents a virtual revolution of the country's prevailing order, including the overthrow of what it refers to as a "semi-colonial and semi-feudal system" and the need to carry out "national industrialization".

How both panels will navigate this terrain is difficult to predict. But based on pronouncements and actions from both sides, it is clear that, at the very least, this round of the negotiations will be protracted, one that some estimate could even outlast the Aquino administration's six-year term. When asked by Agence France-Presse on this point, and also on the point reportedly made by former NDF negotiator Satur Ocampo - that the NDF will call for a "complete reversal of Aquino's economic policies" - Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the CPP and the NDF's chief political consultant, said: "The NDF asks for nothing from the [government], except for what is just and beneficial to the Filipino people as a matter of national and democratic right." The government, on the other hand, seems as determined as ever to pursue the same economic policies that the NDF seeks to overthrow. The latest plank in that platform is so-called private-public partnerships (PPPs), which Aquino had said would be the centerpiece of his economic policy. PPPs are essentially shorthand for privatization, which the left has consistently blamed for much of the country's economic woes.

Ideological Differences

Can the two sides somehow meet halfway? The NDF has hinted at the importance it attaches to this round of negotiations by fielding Sison to lead its side of the discussions. Sison founded the CPP and wrote its bible, Philippine Society and Revolution, a treatise on the Philippines' "semi-feudal and semi-colonial" political economy and how through communist revolution it can and should be overthrown. The NDF emphasized on Tuesday that the government should show its willingness to implement reforms regardless of the peace negotiations. Issues such as lowering prices and fares, increasing wages, giving land to the landless, and justice to victims of state abuses should be government priorities with or without a peace process, it said.

That the government seems unlikely to tackle these issues on its own raises the question of whether it will do so within the ambit of the negotiations or, more fundamentally, whether Manila remains committed to the socio-economic dimension of the Hague Joint Declaration. By signing that agreement, the NDF has claimed, the government recognized not just the validity of its demands but also the reality that these problems are fueling the communist revolution in the Philippines, which continues to rage across a wide geography of the island nation. As Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the NDF panel, said on Tuesday in Oslo: "The peace talks must be guided by mutually acceptable principles and must come out with agreements that address the root causes of armed conflict."

Indeed, what the NDF wants is consistent with growing public demands. In a time of fast rising basic commodity and transport costs - expenses that especially hurt the country's lower middle class and poor - there are intensifying calls for government relief. It's less clear, however, whether there is a grass roots consensus around the NDF's call to halt what it refers to as the government's neo-liberal economic policies, which benefit big and foreign companies to the detriment of the public good.

There are also questions surrounding Aquino's motives in the peace process. His government so far seems convinced that keeping the communists engaged at the negotiating table is an achievement in itself and it's not clear yet that his negotiators are aiming for a genuine comprehensive peace agreement or instead stalling for time. "We have no illusions," said Teresita Deles, Aquino's peace adviser during the opening rites in Oslo, "that signing a peace agreement will solve all social problems". The NDF, for its part, has always said that it has no illusions that the government will accede to its demands. This is why the NDF has consistently resisted attempts by the government to tackle first the disposition of its forces or to surrender before any talks could proceed. They have argued that many revolutions in the Philippines failed due to such capitulation and it's not about to repeat the same mistake.

In any case, the government's position is bolstered by the view put forth by some experts. "Serious obstacles remain to reaching a political settlement. But it is far better to negotiate than to wage an unwinnable war or hope the CPP-NPA will disintegrate over time," according to Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

In a report released on Tuesday, the ICG wrote that the peace talks in Oslo "may be the best hope in years for halting an insurgency that has prevented development in large parts of the Philippines." ICG's position is consistent with the long held government line that the communist insurgency is largely to blame for the country's poverty and economic backwardness. Carol Araullo, chairperson of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, debunked this perspective in a recent newspaper column. "The basic problem is in the attitude towards armed conflict, or the relationship between 'insurgency' and development. The government and the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] have consistently harped on the line that the 'insurgency' is the obstacle to development, to wit: 'If only the armed rebels stop fighting the government and lay down their arms, there will be peace and development in our country'."

"This argument turns the truth upside down and stands it on its head. This kind of thinking is totally blind to the real roots of the armed conflict and is incapable of appreciating, much less grasping, the need to address these roots in order to achieve a just and lasting peace." These "roots," Araullo argued, include landlessness, unemployment, grinding poverty and injustice "that drive people to take up arms against the government." By Carlos H Conde freelance correspondent in Manila for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune.

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