On Valentine's Day and eve of GPH-NDFP formal peace talks: A call to release all political prisoners (Arkibong Bayan)
Activists call for the release of all political prisoners on Valentine's Day and eve of GPH-NDFP formal peace talks in 2011. (Arkibong Bayan)

Although he has yet to be inaugurated as the 16th President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has already met with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). His presumptive peace negotiators also met with the leaders of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) last June 15 in Oslo, Norway, to discuss the resumption of peace talks between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the NDFP by July this year.

The meeting with the NDFP has been described as cordial and open, and that with the MNLF and the MILF as one “among brothers.” Although part of the agenda in the Duterte meeting with the MILF was the incoming administration’s commitment to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which has been in limbo since 2015 because of the Mamasapano incident and the refusal of Congress to act on it, the meeting with the biggest groups that have been involved in the Mindanao conflict was also meant to resolve such other issues as the MNLF’s resistance to the BBL and the tension between it and the MILF.

Duterte apparently urged both groups not only to resolve their differences, but also to reunite. Although the latter is problematic, both the MILF and the MNLF agreed with Duterte’s advocacy of Federalism as among the solutions to the country’s development problems, which have kept communities not only in Mindanao but in other areas as well at a standstill, and as a consequence fueled the making of separatist and revolutionary movements.

The MILF did urge the passage of the BBL first before the present unitary system of government is transformed into a federal one, which is understandable since the change will most probably take time to realize. But the MNLF has its own reservations about the BBL, which it opposes because of its prior peace agreements with the Philippine government, and which it fears will lead to its marginalization.

What the need to address these and substantive issues demonstrate is that peace can only be achieved by addressing the fundamental causes of conflict. While the above issues including the MNLF’s Nur Misuari’s rebellion case have bedeviled the peace process between the Philippine government and the Bangsamoro, the peace process between the GPH and the NDFP has been even more problematic.

Although there was a breakthrough during the Fidel Ramos administration when the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)were signed between the GPH and the NDFP, the peace talks foundered in the administrations of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, primarily on the resistance of the latter two to implement both agreements, thus resulting in the failure to address substantive political and economic issues.

The Aquino administration was particularly adamant in demanding that the NDFP not set conditions for the peace talks, but laid down conditions itself, by demanding an immediate ceasefire during which the New People’s Army must lay down its arms, and by refusing to honor both JASIG and CARHRIHL.

Although it has since denied it, the Aquino government also rejected a 2015 NDFP offer of a ceasefire, in the apparent belief that the Philippine military, such as it is, can defeat the New People’s Army. Its mantra throughout the last five years when the talks have been on and off, and finally off, has been to question NDFP sincerity. Typically, almost immediately after Duterte reiterated his commitment to the resumption of peace talks, Liberal Party senator-elect Risa Hontiveros went on television to demand that the NDFP “prove its sincerity” by, presumably, ordering the NPA to lay down its arms and to implement an immediate ceasefire as preconditions to peace talks.

During his campaign for the Presidency, Rodrigo Duterte pledged to resume peace talks immediately, and—perhaps aware of the necessity to address the root causes of Asia’s longest running armed revolutionary movement—to invite the participation of the Communist Party of the Philippines in the government to help bring about some of the changes Duterte was promising. He also pledged to release those political prisoners involved in the stalled peace talks.

They have so far not alluded to the peace talks as a reason for their anxiety, but the usual suspects—the militarists, the ideologues behind them, and those groups that in this country have a stake in NOT seeing any reforms implemented—have weighed in on Duterte’s “roadmap to communism,” starting with, among others, the (false) claim that the June 15 preliminary talks in Oslo were on the composition and program of a coalition government.

Although Duterte has so far been as good as his word where the peace talks are concerned, the meeting between his presumptive negotiators and the NDFP yielded within two days only an agreement to resume the peace talks, reconstitute the JASIG, proclaim an amnesty for political prisoners subject to Congressional concurrence, and implement a temporary ceasefire once the new administration assumes office.

Nevertheless, Norberto Gonzalez, the former National Security Adviser of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, insists that what had stalled the talks during the Arroyo and Aquino administrations was the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NDFP’s insistence on a coalition government. He also alleges that “either by sheer incompetence or by subterfuge of (sic) the imbedded communist elements in government,”the Aquino administration “did manage to provide the communists ample resources (!) and political space to recover from major reverses the movement suffered during past administrations.”

The former Arroyo NSA’s piece, published in a newspaper of abysmally low circulation, is all about how great the Arroyo administration was in the area of counter-insurgency and how awful the Aquino government has been, as evident in, among other acts, its keeping Arroyo and former Army Major General Jovito Palparan in detention, on the argument that the former is entirely innocent, while the latter’s offenses “pale in comparison” to the crimes allegedly committed by the political prisoners the Duterte administration is likely to release. (In a skewed moral universe, killing and torturing unarmed men, women and children is apparently less monstrous than killing armed combatants in battle.)

The Gonzalez piece also goes into the implications of the appointment of “communists” in the Duterte Cabinet, which he says grants the CPP de facto coalition status. Finally, he uses the “C” word, alleging that the presence of four alleged communists in the Cabinet would enable the CPP to stage a coup, implying thereby that Duterte would be responsible for a “shift tocommunism.”

He then launches into what he says are the communists’ intent to hold on to power permanently, and also suggests that the “insurgency” can turn into a religious war (!). The rest include speculations on the role of the US and China in what he calls the “Duterte-CPP coalition,” and the “shift to communism.” (It is pointless to argue against those who cannot appreciate reason and fact that such a “shift” is not accomplished merely by appointing “communists” to Cabinet posts.)

Although the piece is one long diatribe against communism, communists, and the Aquino administration, it’s not so much directed at the NDFP or even the CPP as it is at Duterte, while at the same time being addressed to the same groups in the military responsible for the extrajudicial killings of unarmed legal personalities that ultra-rightist ideologues abetted during the Arroyo administration.

Although Duterte is still to assume office, it’s a warning that some of his announced policies, particularly those on peace and towards the Left, do not sit well with those personalities and groups whose interests lie in keeping things the way they have been for centuries. There are forces out there that will not tolerate even the slightest hint of peace and reform — and they’re likely to do something, anything, to prevent both.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image 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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