If the between the armed forces of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and those of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) officially and finally ends as a result of the peace talks between these adversaries, Rodrigo Roa Duterte will secure a place in history as the most effective president the Philippines has ever had since the restoration of independence in 1946. It will mean that the most extensive reforms of Philippine society shall have been implemented, the end of the longest-running civil war in Asia being contingent on the elimination of its causes.

Such issues that have haunted Mr. Duterte as human rights violations and the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of suspected drug pushers and users, his cursing foreign heads of state, his profanity-laced statements — most of whatever else he has said, will say or do — will pale into insignificance compared to that achievement.

The peace talks have been off and on since the Corazon Aquino regime and came to a standstill during the administration of Benigno Aquino III, which shared with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) the illusion that a military solution without addressing the roots of the war was possible. The talks were resumed last year at the initiative of Mr. Duterte and have rapidly progressed over the last ten months.

If they are successfully concluded and agreements on social, economic and political reforms rigorously implemented, they will release millions of tenant-farmers and the landless from the fetters of rural poverty and hopelessness, transform the Philippines into an independent, industrialized country, and usher in an era of justice, equality, and unprecedented prosperity for the majority of the population.

A final peace agreement will not be reached solely because of the end of the 48-year war between the NDFP and the GPH — a war that has its antecedents in the revolts that go back to the Spanish occupation and the Revolution of 1896. The success of the peace negotiations — the final end of hostilities — is premised on the adoption of CASER and the necessary political and constitutional reforms needed for its successful implementation by the GPH.

CASER is the acronym for the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms, the adoption and successful implementation of which both the GPH and the NDFP peace negotiators say will result in the end of hostilities. It will be the focus of the discussions during the fifth round of the peace talks in the Netherlands that will start on May 27. The most critical proposals in CASER are the implementation of a rigorous land redistribution program free of the loopholes of previous land reform acts, and national industrialization

Although the talks have reached the CASER stage, contentious issues remain, among them the question of outright confiscation without compensation of land illegally acquired and who or what agency or entity will implement land reform. Both panels had earlier agreed to distribute land without cost to landless peasants. The government will instead compensate land owners who have lawfully acquired their land. This will require some PHP 78 billion in additional Congressional appropriations to cover compensation for the redistribution of some three million hectares to landless tillers and poor farmers.

In addition to these concerns, the declaration of a bilateral ceasefire while the talks are going on, like the Duterte regime’s promised but as yet unrealized release of some 400 political prisoners, has been a continuing and vexing issue from the very beginning.

Alan Jazmines, vice chair of the NDFP Reciprocal Working Committee on Social and Economic Reform, complains that the GPH panel has been demanding a ceasefire before the signing of any agreement on social and economic as well as political and constitutional reforms, which, he says, “puts the cart before the horse.”

But GPH Ceasefire Committee Chair Francisco Lara argues that a ceasefire while the talks are going on will address popular doubts that anything can be achieved by the peace talks by putting a stop to the encounters between the GPH military and police and the New People’s Army (NPA).

Lara says that during the unilateral ceasefires declared by the GPH and the NPA early this year, there was “a dramatic decrease” in the number of such encounters, demonstrating to everyone that something was being achieved. But Jazmines points out that even during that period, GPH police and military units were harassing community leaders and attacking NPA-held areas, which explains why the NPA lifted its ceasefire declaration last February.

The difference in these views is based on a disagreement over how rigorously military and police forces observed the ceasefire President Duterte declared the in July, 2016, as well as on whether they desisted from attacking communities they regarded as NPA-influenced after, even as the peace talks were continuing.

There is compelling evidence to support Jazmines’ contention. Nineteen activist farmer leaders and indigenous people were killed, apparently by government forces, in 2016 despite the government ceasefire, while four others were arrested for opposing land-grabbing. Early this year the military also bombed areas that were supposedly NPA sanctuaries and arrested several farmers on suspicion that they were NPA guerillas.

Although framed by much of the media as NPA attacks, NPA actions, says Jazmines, have been defensive. The NPA has no choice but to respond to military and police harassments and the arrest and even killing of community leaders, hence its reluctance to enter into another pre-CASER ceasefire that would leave military-targeted communities defenseless.

Military opposition to the success of peace talks premised on wide-ranging social, economic and political reforms rather than the surrender of NDFP forces has understandably led to fears that the military’s foreign and local patrons will preempt the success of the talks through some means including a coup d’etat. It does seem possible, given the experience of other countries in which aspirations for authentic reform, mass empowerment and people-centered development have been frustrated by the combined power of the military, the local elite and their imperialist patrons.

Only a militant and awakened people can prevent something similar from happening in the Philippines in the face of the resistance to reforms, already evident today, by the handful of families that stand to lose both their power and privilege once social, political and economic reforms are implemented to benefit the vast majority of Filipinos.

It won’t do for the Duterte regime to succumb to the threats gathering against the peace process for the quite simple reason that the stakes, for the Filipino millions as well as Mr. Duterte, are too much to risk another failure to reform Philippine society. Will the former remain condemned to poverty, injustice and misery, or will they finally realize their aspirations for a country of peace, justice, independence and prosperity? Will the latter leave the presidency as just another bureaucratic burden on the people, or will he emerge as the catalyst of Filipino hopes and aspirations?

CASER is the key element today that can decide the fate of millions of Filipinos including those yet to be born. As in the heady days of the EDSA civilian-military mutiny, the Filipino people are once again in that historic juncture between the completion of the Revolution of 1896 and its remaining unfinished.

First published on BusinessWorld. Photo from Arkibong Bayan.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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