Slim chance of deal in peace talks
The third round of peace talks ongoing in Rome between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines will be contentious as they tackle a bilateral ceasefire pact subject to the release of political prisoners. More acrimonious will be the debate on a comprehensive agreement on socioeconomic reforms. The panels headed by Silvestre Bello and NDFP chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili agree to finish the talks in one or two years, leaving time to enforce a final peace accord under this administration.
Setting the tone of the talks’ resumption last August, President Duterte freed 19 NDFP consultants, named progressives to Cabinet posts, reaffirmed previous agreements, and declared a unilateral ceasefire which the NDFP later reciprocated. Amid irritants on both sides—e.g., the Left’s demand for the release of 400 political prisoners as well as ceasefire violations—the two panels geared for the third round.
Unlike ancient gladiators, the peace warriors went to Rome but not without swords and shields as they seek to strike a deal on socioeconomic reforms. In its 47-year armed struggle, the NDFP has fought for such reforms topped by free land distribution and national industrialization. It says it is open to a peaceful settlement that addresses the roots of war. The cutting edge in the talks now is the government’s coming to terms with the Left’s comprehensive demands, or a deal on minimum, substantive and just programs.
Mr. Duterte sees the New People’s Army as “trouble” with no territory under its control, and he wants to end the war to boost business and investment. With an amorphous “socialist” mindset, he is unclear about how he will carry out socioeconomic reforms; if he has such a plan, it is buried under his war on drugs. He is the first president to sign an order for freedom of information covering the executive branch, and to order fast-tracked public transactions. But transparency is clouded by the police’s concealed role in drug-related extrajudicial killings and the lack of legislated FOI. And for all his cozying up to China and Russia, his “independent foreign policy” is shorn of any official act rescinding the Philippines’ defense alliance with America and banning foreign forces from the country.
The NDFP’s progressive social and economic reforms collide with the dominant neoliberalism of Mr. Duterte’s chief economists, who also thumbed down a 2-year land conversion moratorium and mining restrictions proposed by Cabinet progressives. They nix restrictions on foreign equity to allow full foreign ownership of land and other vital resources. Nothing is wrong, they say, in keeping the neoliberal policies of past regimes, such as public-private partnerships and contractualization which has aggravated joblessness and widened income disparity.
Such policies underscore irreconcilable differences between the two panels on the socioeconomic agenda. The Rome encounter will be protracted, with extended talks later on political and constitutional reforms. A bilateral ceasefire is a high-stakes prospect given the uncertain release of political prisoners. NDFP leaders say talks can continue even with a ceasefire breakdown. This scenario will derail Mr. Duterte’s all-out war on extremists in Mindanao and lock the military to two warfronts—a setback to his peace strategy. The last thing he needs now is a war with the more resilient communists.
A failed armed solution to the ideology-driven Left rebellion has forced the government in the past 30 years to negotiate. But this track is driven mainly to silence the NPA’s guns, leaving needed reforms uncertain. Government negotiators rate the NPA’s strength on the areas it controls, glossing over the fact that in the nature of guerrilla war, it now operates in 120 guerrilla fronts. The Left’s aggregate strength includes the mass base that it musters nationwide, a key player in bringing down rogue regimes since the 80s.
In the current talks, Mr. Duterte has narrow options. One is to find a common ground with the NDFP by adopting thoroughgoing reforms that require a coalition where the Left and other progressive movements take part in governance and lawmaking. It’s a process that the government loathes. Attritive bargaining and indefinite war are what’s left.
Bobby M. Tuazon is director for policy studies of the think tank CenPEG.
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