Monday, March 21, 2011

Philippine Peace Plans: Can Aquino's Overtures Succeed?

Like others before him, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has included the pursuit of domestic peace and stability among his priorities. And last month, this vital effort kicked off with the resumption of stalled peace talks involving two central protagonists: the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Each of these rebel groups has been active for decades, and Manila has sought to either defeat them militarily or reach accommodation through negotiations aimed at addressing issues at the root of their discontent. The latter appears a more realistic approach - and a more equitable one - though this has long proven elusive.

The Philippines has in the process suffered tens of thousands killed or injured, and many more dislocated. Hardly less significant, the economic development of outlying regions has been deeply hindered.

The government's peace initiative is being pursued along several tracks, with formal negotiations the most evident. This process involving the CPP is being facilitated by Norway, and Malaysia is leading efforts involving the MILF.

“I am hopeful that the talks will not become mired in technical issues... (and) think it is promising indeed that the two parties have agreed to address substantial issues - core issues - during formal talks,” Norwegian special envoy Ture Lundh told The Straits Times. “As a third-party facilitator we are prepared for a bumpy ride. But we are patient and in for the long haul.”

Manila's lead agency in this effort, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, under Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, is also seeking to address societal issues at the root of armed conflict. But this will surely require long- term effort.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), for its part, appears keen to establish a conducive environment.

“We are now focused on implementing the Internal Peace and Security Plan 'Bayanihan', where winning the peace is paramount rather than defeating the enemy. It is in this light that the AFP's mission for internal peace and security has been redrawn,” said the military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr. “With our forces shifted to development work to support the national government we shall be able to better complement the initiatives of civilian authorities in addressing the root causes of conflict.”

Then, with a sense of realism, he added: “One of our important tasks is to ensure that the armed group with whom the government is talking peace will be unable to use force, or the threat of force, as leverage at the negotiating table.”

Though such efforts suggest sincerity, the problems are complex and extend beyond the battlefield to cover issues ranging from land distribution to respect for human rights. And the likelihood of imperfect solutions has been acknowledged, even extending to prospective peace deals.

“We have always seen the possibility of some segments not coming in (to a peace agreement), but this is unlikely to be significant,” Secretary Deles said in 2005, during her previous posting to the peace portfolio.

The Communists

ALEXANDER Padilla, Manila's chief negotiator for peace talks aimed at ending the communist insurgency active in the Philippines since 1969, is encouraged by the first round of negotiations held last month in Oslo.

“We crafted a joint communique that described the various agreements arrived at ... (and) a timetable has been agreed upon with specific desired dates when each of the substantive agreements should be concluded. The general framework should be finished in 18 months at the earliest or within a maximum of three years,” he said.

Further, Padilla added, dates have been set to discuss reconvening the Joint Monitoring Committee. Launched to oversee a human rights agreement signed by both parties in 1998, the committee has been inactive for several years.

The Philippine government is doubtless heartened by the communist movement's diminished fighting strength. From a 1986 peak of more than 25,000, the New People's Army is today thought to number under 5,000, but questions linger over the leadership's sincerity in pursuing a peaceful resolution.

Earlier efforts to craft an agreement never advanced beyond technical issues, with some suspecting that this was a tactic allowing the party to rebuild its strength. These issues included questions concerning political prisoners and the implementation of safety and immunity guarantees, as well as communist displeasure over the group's formal branding by the United States as a terrorist organization.

It has now been agreed to address such matters in a separate side-table mechanism, paving the way for substantive discussion.

“The question of sincerity has always been a difficult issue,” said Padilla. “We can only assess it based on what is happening now and not what transpired previously.”

There is nevertheless some question whether the Communist Party of the Philippines remains a cohesive movement. They are represented in the peace process by the exiled leadership under Jose Maria Sison, based in Utrecht, although some suspect that real power now rests with Philippines-based Benito and Wilma Tiamzon.

Padilla acknowledged that there is “some speculation whether or not [the Utrecht group] is in actual control” but added that there is also conjecture over the Tiamzons. “Rather than speculate,” he said, “we would rather deal with the Utrecht group not only because we believe it still has substantial control over local forces, but even if it doesn't then working out a settlement with them would always be better than not trying at all."

This view is validated by two recent ceasefire agreements, Padilla argued. “These were very successful. The levels of violence decreased, there were no reported deaths or serious injuries during their entire duration,” he said.

“The fact that at the end of the day, some elements of the organization may simply reject any putative peace agreement is one that we are already prepared for. Absolute unanimity [in such cases] is difficult to get but the insurgency would be greatly impaired and may reduce such recalcitrant elements to merely brigands or criminal elements where the same may be addressed purely by the police.”


Manila is pushing to reach a peace deal with the main Muslim secessionist group active in the southern Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], after getting tantalizingly near a deal in 2008. A workable agreement would end more than 40 years of conflict.

Hopes have already been dashed several times. This initially occurred when the MILF was formed in 1981 by supporters of the Moro National Liberation Front who rejected a putative agreement reached with Manila. It most recently suffered a setback when the Supreme Court rejected a key accord concluded three years ago.

The stalled peace process was reinvigorated with the resumption of talks last month. Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen characterized these as “very cordial”.

This meeting saw a continuum maintained with agreement on renewing the mandate for two mechanisms: the International Monitoring Team and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group. The former monitors agreement compliance and includes representatives from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya, Norway, Japan and the European Union. The latter is effectively a tool for the MILF to police areas under its influence against disruptive criminal activities, such as kidnappings.

The impasse that resulted from the Supreme Court ruling is, meanwhile, being addressed through new legislation.

“The ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] organic law is in the process of being amended and we are optimistic that the exercise will bring about full implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement,” Dean Marvic Leonen told The Straits Times. “We have a rich history of previous negotiation strategies we can learn from and we are taking advantage of this to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.”

The government negotiator went on to speak of local consultation, emphasizing that “ARMM constituents and the whole of Mindanao must be one with us in our commitment to ensure we realize a comprehensive, just and durable peace”. But the “comprehensive” aspect may yet prove elusive.

A local MILF field commander heading a sizeable force, Commander Ameril Umbra Kato appears to have split with the group's central leadership over his opposition to the brewing peace deal.

Leonen said that the issue concerning Commander Kato is an internal matter that the MILF leadership intends to resolve. “We were also assured by the MILF that consultations were made on the ground to stress to their constituency the need for a politically negotiated settlement,” he added.

More unexpectedly, the current violent unrest in Libya could produce unforeseen fallout in the Philippines as Tripoli has been deeply involved in stabilization efforts. Libya played a central role in helping craft the 1976 peace agreement involving the MNLF, resolved the 2000 Sipadan kidnapping incident involving the Abu Sayyaf Group, and participates in the International Monitoring Team.

“We are hoping that the political situation in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen will not have an impact on our ongoing peace process... and we are confident that the three Libyan representatives [with the International Monitoring Team] will carry on their mandate,” Leonen affirmed.

The next round of talks, originally due to take place in Kuala Lumpur at the end of this month, has been rescheduled by Malaysia for late April without explanation.

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia.

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