Wishful thinking

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It had never been clear until recently what the Arroyo administration’s policy was on the armed, ideologically driven groups that have been fighting the government. Now that it’s becoming clear, however, one wonders if it’s grounded on sound bases and not just on bluster and wishful thinking.

Toward the MILF Mrs. Arroyo had been ambivalent in both word and deed during the first few months of her presidency. About the New People’s Army, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front, she initially said nary a word as to what her government’s policy would be.

Would she continue with the peace negotiations, which had progressed significantly during the Ramos administration, but which had been abruptly cut short by Joseph Estrada? Or would she, like Estrada, wage all-out war against the groups under the NDF alliance?

No one was sure, although it was widely assumed among the militant and progressive civil-society groups that she would choose the first option. It was after all virtually unthinkable, in the aftermath of the demonstration of the power of the organized groups and their commitment to the reform of Philippine society and politics that was People Power 2, that its prime beneficiary should choose the second option.

However, Mrs. Arroyo’s military support, as exemplified by Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, had remained as committed to the military solution as the military had been before and during Estrada’s incumbency. It soon became evident that the military and police were the ascendant powers in the Arroyo administration, which meant, among others, that their views were similarly preeminent.

Those views apparently gained Mrs. Arroyo’s support as her political interests reinforced her by now apparent faith, not in the collective action and support of the people, but in the traditional centers of power in Philippine society, among them the police and military, the Church, the business community, and the United States (the world’s mightiest power and still politically influential in powerless Philippines).

The national debate that ensued when Mrs. Arroyo committed the Philippines to the US “war on terrorism,” and soon invited US troop involvement in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, provided Mrs. Arroyo the opportunity to gradually make known her policies not only on bandit groups like the Abu Sayyaf but also on the ideologically driven groups fighting for political, social and economic change.

She began by dismissing criticism of Balikatan and related issues as solely those of communists, but has since progressed to shifting her focus from the Abu Sayyaf to the NPA. Although Defense Secretary Reyes has denied that the shift means the adoption of a de facto total-war approach, Mrs. Arroyo’s statements early this week were unmistakably belligerent.

Those statements also implied not only an impatience but a disaffection with peace negotiations, and a government option for the military solution. These statements were at the same time backed by her order to deploy troops from the Abu Sayyaf-influenced areas of Mindanao to NPA areas, and by equally belligerent statements from Reyes and National Security Adviser Roilo Golez.

Mrs. Arroyo has so far not declared all-out war against the NPA and the National Democratic Front, its armed component. If, however, that is indeed the option Mrs. Arroyo has chosen to deal with rebellion and insurgency, she would be replicating Estrada’s scuttling of negotiations, and ignoring the lessons of the country’s experience during the Marcos period.

Apparently in the belief that the Armed Forces could decisively defeat the NPA, Estrada suspended talks with the NDF during the last year of his presidency and reneged on the preliminary agreements the Ramos administration had signed with the NDF.

The Ramos administration had continued the initiatives during the Aquino presidency for peace talks. The decision to continue the talks was premised on the conviction that the “insurgency problem” could not be solved through military means, given its socioeconomic roots.

Mrs. Aquino’s predecessor, Marcos, had initiated and had relentlessly pursued an all-out war policy against the NDF and its member organizations, especially the NPA. The Marcos military, however, also focused its attention on the support infrastructure of the NDF. It thus wreaked havoc in the countryside by arresting, detaining, torturing and in many cases summarily executing suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The Marcos troops also strafed, bombed and destroyed entire villages, reconcentrated their populations and erected food blockades, while conducting sonas in suspected guerrilla enclaves in the cities.

Meant to destroy the NPA and NDF while they were still small, the Marcos campaigns produced the opposite result. The NPA, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the other organizations under the NDF grew in number and strength, and by the time the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in 1986, it had become “the NPA’s biggest recruiter.”

Overthrown by a civilian-military mutiny in 1986, the Marcos dictatorship was succeeded by the Aquino administrations, which logically enough chose peace negotiations rather than the resumption of the futile and self-defeating all-out war option the previous government had adopted.

Although the Aquino administration’s initiatives were frustrated by military pressure, it maintained that negotiations were still the only way to peace, with only the terms of their conduct being at issue.

Despite his military background, Fidel Ramos accepted the premises for peace negotiations, and his government eventually reached preliminary agreements with the NDF as the bases for the continuance of the talks. Throughout the Ramos period the talks continued, only to be scuttled by Estrada.

The Aquino and Ramos policy of holding peace negotiations was premised on the conviction—or at least official announcements to that effect—that negotiations could work, as they had worked in El Salvador, to the possible extent of the guerrillas’ outright surrender.

A cash-strapped, deficit-hounded government could also ill-afford the expense of total war, with the havoc it wreaked on the economy, its diversion of funds from productive initiatives, its adverse impact on investments, and its contributing to capital flight. By allocating scarce resources to military and police efforts, the delivery of social services inevitably suffers.

The human rights abuses that inevitably accompany purely military efforts also drive oppressed and desperate citizens into the armed option, and deepen the pool of guerrilla and support group recruits.

Other factors make the scuttling of peace talks and all-out war now futile and even self-defecting. Mrs. Arroyo does not have the absolute powers that Marcos enjoyed during the martial-law period—unless she intends to crown herself with absolute powers through some subterfuge that will exclude an open declaration. The economic conditions today are also far worse than they were in the seventies, and likely to be exacerbated by the escalation of civil war.

There is of course the $55 million the Arroyo administration has been recompensed with for its support of the US “war on terrorism,” and the US troops’ having trained units of the Armed Forces in counterinsurgency during Balikatan.

However, $55 million is only a fraction of the military aid the Marcos government received between 1973 and 1985 through the administrations of five US presidents. Large amounts of US military aid, however, did not enable him to suppress the NDF, its allied organizations and the NPA.

What then makes the Arroyo administration think that it can do better fighting the NPA using the same approach and the same tactics in conditions much less favorable than those during Marcos’s rule?

(TODAY, ABS-CBNNEWS, August 10, 2002)

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