Wishful thinking

President Rodrigo Duterte and members of the National Democratic Front Peace Panel
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After saying that he still “has to talk to the NPA (New People’s Army),” by which statement he meant that the Government of the Philippines will have to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he’s not yet ready to do so. His latest statements on the fate of the stalled peace talks came after the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) declaration that, having rid Marawi City of the Maute group and recruited and trained more troops, it will now turn its attention to the NPA and “crush” it by the end of 2018.

Mr. Duterte had cancelled last May the fifth round of talks scheduled for June, and demanded an end to NPA tactical offensives and its collection of revolutionary taxes, and an immediate ceasefire.

He followed that up with statements that both sides should just resume fighting (it has never really ceased), the talks’ supposedly being just a waste of government money, threats to impose martial law, and lately, the formation of a “revolutionary” government.

The regime, however, has not issued a formal notice terminating the peace talks. In the eyes of those who follow developments in the decades-long negotiations, it seems that despite his seeming hostility to continuing the talks, Mr. Duterte has never quite surrendered to his military advisers’ insistence that the only way to end the nearly half-century civil war is through military means.

The AFP threat that it will crush the NPA within a certain period is not new. It has vowed to do the same during practically every administration since that of Ferdinand Marcos’. But the NPA has not only survived for 48 years since its founding. It is also implementing agrarian reform and establishing its own governing bodies in the territories it now controls.

It grew in strength during the Marcos terror regime, when the arbitrary imprisonment, torture, enforced disappearances and outright murder of regime critics and human rights defenders, as well as progressive clergy, artists, writers and journalists and anyone else who dared resist fascist rule convinced thousands of men and women to join the NPA, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the organizations that had coalesced under the NDFP banner.

The brutal campaigns of suppression that followed in the various regimes after Marcos’ 21-year rule similarly failed, despite the toll exacted by the errors of the 1990s from which the underground has since recovered, and the extrajudicial killings and State assault on legal mass organizations and their leaders during the Macapagal-Arroyo and Aquino III regimes.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating. The so-called “insurgency” — a misnomer straight out of US imperial vocabulary, which regards every movement for independence and authentic development, including the Revolution of 1896, as illegitimate — draws its strength from the demands for the political, economic and social reforms that the Filipino people need to combat and finally put an end to the injustice, mass misery and runaway poverty that condemn millions to short, brutish lives.

It should by now be obvious to everyone with half a brain that only the realization of the changes that drove the Revolution of 1896 can bring about authentic development and end the conflicts that have riven this country for decades. Hence the NDFP insistence on, and early this year, the Philippine Government peace panel’s recognition of, the need for both parties to sign on to the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER), and eventually, to reach a consensus on political and Constitutional changes.

The AFP does recognize that the NPA draws its strength from the discontent and hunger for change rampant in the Philippine countryside, thus the supposed emphasis on “development” of its counter-“insurgency” strategy. This approach implicitly admits that underdevelopment and poverty lead to armed resistance.

Unfortunately, digging ditches and drilling artesian wells, themselves already of limited impact in the rural communities, often give way to the same and even worse tactics that encourage further disenchantment with the government, among them the harassment and murder of farmer and Lumad leaders, and the bombing of communities the AFP claims to be NPA strongholds. Despite the decades that have passed, the AFP approach is still caught in the time warp of the 1950s, when it did rout the Huks — from which defeat, however, the reestablished CPP and the NPA have drawn appropriate lessons.

Relatively unremarked is the AFP’s dubious capacity to meet its latest threat of crushing the NPA by 2018 because of its past failures not only to meet similar deadlines but also its many unkept promises on ending the war in Marawi City. Praised to high heavens by Mr. Duterte and its own generals, the AFP, even its spokesperson has admitted, could have ended the Marawi siege sooner and with less destruction and fewer lives lost had its troops been better-equipped, and trained in urban rather than jungle warfare.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Adam Harvey, who has been covering the Marawi conflict since June and who was shot in the neck then, points out the same thing, and more, in his analysis, “Why Marawi’s 300,000-odd refugees don’t blame Islamic State for drawn-out conflict.”

“When the shooting stops” in Marawi, predicts Harvey, “local sympathy remains for the terrorists and their cause.” That sympathy, he argues, “has been fueled by the Philippine Government and its generals, who have displayed woeful intelligence, tactics and communications throughout the five-month battle.”

Harvey says the AFP had no idea before it happened that the Maute group “was planning an attack on the city, had stockpiled weapons and ammunition, and prepared fighting positions and supplies.” He also recalls the AFP’s “constant predictions of imminent victory” back in June, despite the “inexplicably slow” retaking of Marawi.

AFP troops and the police, Harvey continues, were “lying low so far from the frontline,” while fighter jets flew the bombing missions that have left Marawi in ruins. “Where was the methodical house-to-house clearance,” Harvey asks, and “the assault from multiple directions?”

Harvey then goes on to narrate how in his interviews with soldiers, he found out that they are poorly-trained, underarmed and short of ammunition. And yet billions have been spent on AFP “modernization,” and billions more allotted for the military in next year’s budget.

The result of the failure in military intelligence, and the soldiery’s poor training and outdated equipment, was the prolonged conflict in Marawi, the high number of civilian and military dead, the city’s total destruction, and the displacement of 300,000-plus people as internal refugees who are both distressed and outraged over the loss of their homes and livelihoods.

And yet the Maute group and its Islamic State (IS) allies who gave the “modernized” AFP such a difficult time were no more than a few hundred men concentrated in a small area, had hardly any coherent strategic and tactical philosophy, and were led by extremists whose vision of the future was limited to gaining control over Marawi so it can earn the support of a terrorist group based thousands of kilometers from the Philippines.

But is the AFP’s seeming confidence that it can crush the NPA by 2018 based on its belief that its troops’ training in jungle warfare will be enough to subdue a force with a nationwide presence that has been fighting it to a virtual stalemate for nearly five decades? Did it make that pledge to stop Mr. Duterte from resuming the peace talks on the assumption that its recruitment and deployment of more troops, and the guns Mr. Duterte has wheedled out of his friends in the formerly socialist, now predatory capitalist states of Russia and China will convince him that the AFP can finally proclaim victory over the NPA by next year?

Or is its 2018 deadline in the same category of wishful thinking as its generals’ many false predictions of “imminent victory” over the Maute group during the war in Marawi?

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

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