The unfortunately named Magdalo group — the Magdalo was the Katipunan faction that murdered Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna — identified with Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has a point. It doesn’t do anyone any good for the Philippine government (GPH), particularly the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and President Rodrigo Duterte on the one hand, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) on the other, to be throwing accusations at each other at this time when the peace talks between them have been suspended and are in grave danger of once again being abandoned, as they were during the Corazon Aquino, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III administrations.
What’s at stake is not only the possibility of finally ending the 120-year-old war that has been raging in this country since the late 19th century. Also at issue is the opportunity of putting in place the reforms that could address the fundamental causes of that war for independence and social revolution. Assigning blame for the breakdown of the talks thus seems like a child’s game.
But then again, the citizenry has to understand that the contending sides have their respective interests in the talks. Although both want the talks to succeed, each defines “success” differently. The AFP, having defined “success” in any peace negotiation as simply the end of hostilities, has always insisted that the forces of the NDFP lay down their arms first.
It’s in keeping with the AFP’s historical antecedents. Founded by the US colonial regime to destroy the remnants of the Katipunan, and sustained since then by US support on the basis of shared political and ideological assumptions, the AFP is not in the business of revolution or even reform, but of protecting the political, economic and social order it has been conditioned for over a hundred years to believe is the best of all possible worlds for itself and its foreign and domestic patrons.
The AFP has always made the NDFP’s surrender a condition for the talks so that the NDFP would then be unable to support its demand for fundamental reforms with arms and would be forced to agree to a peace agreement dictated by the government. An NDFP surrender would make an agreement on social, economic and political reforms superfluous, it being then in no condition to make any demands.
The end result would be a temporary and unstable peace to the total disadvantage and continuing poverty and marginalization of the the poor farmers, workers, indigenous people, middle and small traders and professionals that constitute the NDFP constituency because it has not addressed the causes of conflict in the first place. It seems clear enough to everyone with any sense: the causes of conflict not having been addressed, whatever peace is achieved, even if it were based on the total military defeat and surrender of the NDFP would only be temporary, and war would be a continuing possibility.
It explains why the NDFP insists on the need to put in place the social, economic and political reforms that would mitigate if not eliminate the poverty and injustice that for centuries have been the lot of the Filipino majority. It also understands that it can’t lay down its arms without making the reforms it wants impossible to achieve.
It’s a logical stance the reasonable should be able to appreciate. During and after the 2016 campaign for the Presidency of the Republic, it seemed that Rodrigo Duterte was in that category rare in these isles of unreason. Although his administration has been virtually synonymous with the campaign against illegal drugs and its cost in human rights and lives, it seemed then that he understood only too well the imperative of holding peace talks with the NDFP without the conditions that doomed the talks in three administrations.
Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with the NDFP during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), and in seeming recognition of the Philippine Left’s capacities, appointed NDFP nominees to Cabinet and other positions. He immediately resumed peace talks with the NDFP, even as he denounced US intervention in Philippine affairs and announced his adoption of an independent foreign policy, suggesting thereby a gasp of US imperialism unusual among this country’s politicians.
The achievement of authentic independence through the abrogation of those agreements that tie the country to US imperial interests and the need to develop friendly, mutually beneficial relations with all countries is in fact part of the 12-point NDFP program. Ending poverty and corruption, which were among Duterte’s promised commitments, are similarly part of the same program, thus the seeming meeting of the minds on that score. By August last year Duterte was promising to release not only NDFP peace consultants in the custody of the government, but also all political prisoners. The NDFP held him to that promise, which remained unfulfilled apparently because of AFP resistance, and as a consequence became a crucial sticking point in the talks.
Duterte’s unsolicited declaration of a unilateral ceasefire was nevertheless immediately reciprocated by the NDFP, and the succeeding rounds of talks yielded positive results, among them the reaffirmation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) signed during the Ramos administration, which succeeding administrations had ignored.
What should be obvious from all these is that the unilateral NDFP and GPH ceasefires were not what made the talks possible, but the commitment by both sides to the possibility of reaching a mutually acceptable agreement that would lead to a just and sustainable peace. The end of hostilities is in fact part of the agenda of the peace talks. Although the talks were expected to be, and indeed have been, contentious, the reality is that both sides share certain interests, among them the imperative of the Philippines’ achieving real independence and authentic development.
That would entail the adoption and implementation of reforms that in this country would be opposed by those forces, both foreign and domestic, that would be adversely affected. Almost predictably has the institutional minion of those forces used the ceasefires as a cover to sabotage the talks.
Duterte had earlier openly identified the AFP as an obstacle to his opening to the Left, declaring on some occasions that a military coup could remove him from office or worse. Obviously to appease the military, in the aftermath of the lifting of both the NDFP and GPH ceasefires, Duterte has declared total war and labelled as “spoiled brats” and “terrorists” the same people whom only a few months ago he was describing as fighting for principle and militarily unbeatable because they have the support of the poor.
For any government to expect that it would always get what it wants while reneging on its pledge to release political prisoners and refusing to rein in the AFP is either a disingenuous way of saying that it doesn’t really want peace despite its rhetoric, or indicative of a serious misunderstanding of how complex peace talks can be due to the conflicting interests involved and the domestic and foreign powers resident in the State opposed to the authentic changes that can guarantee lasting peace.
The Duterte statement that it will take one more generation (25 years) for peace to be achieved sounds too much like a military-sourced self-fulfilling prophecy — it will happen because we will make it happen — not to arouse among the skeptical the impulse to dismiss the Duterte peace rhetoric as just that — rhetoric, and calculated to lead to the predetermined end of failure. Only the resumption of the talks and the GPH’s compliance with its own promises can prove that emerging perception wrong.
First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the National Democratic Front.