Peace zones: Let them be, leave them be
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. was reported to have said that peace zones like those in Sagada, Mountain Province and in Mindanao would be reviewed, basically insofar as these have barred the entry and presence of police and military personnel but not rebels, particularly of the New People’s Army (NPA) who have supposedly taken advantage of some peace zones for sanctuary, recruitment and as a training ground. However, despite their misgivings about the alleged rebel infiltration of peace zones, it is notable that security officials like Esperon and the Army’s 5th Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. Pablo Lorenzo, still speak of “honoring” and “continuing to recognize” these peace zones.
Both Esperon and Lorenzo, however, also speak of setting new rules or mechanisms in place for the efficient and effective delivery of government services to improve the lives of people in these peace zones, including for the military’s engineering brigades to build roads or bridges near or within peace zones.
But the most immediate or urgent concern in this time of escalated armed conflict and insurgency-related killings, as in Negros island, is to ensure continued civilian protection from armed hostilities. Local communities like those in Sagada should be allowed and respected in their autonomous decisions to declare or maintain their localities as peace zones, which are, at the minimum, off-limits to armed conflict or hostilities, though not necessarily off-limits to soldiers and rebels.
It might be good to go back to the definition and other policy formulations of what used to be House Bill No. 1867 in the 13th Congress, for “The Peace Zones Policy Act of 2004.” Here, a peace zone was defined as “a people-initiated, community-based arrangement in a local geographic area which residents themselves declare to be off-limits to armed conflict, primarily to protect the civilians, livelihood and property there and to contribute to the more comprehensive peace process.” The proposed basic policy on peace zones “shall be one of openness, respect, recognition, consultation, appropriate support, and ensuring their integrity and autonomy.” Among five proposed specific policies was that “Peace zones shall be oriented to the peace process, and not be used for counter-insurgency or for rebel base-building.”
What is important, given the “whole-of-nation approach” institutionalized by Executive Order No. 70 as “a government policy for the attainment of inclusive and sustainable peace,” is for the government not to coopt the peace zones into that “whole-of-nation approach,” such as
for counter-insurgency. This will only
defeat the purpose and even integrity of peace zones as autonomous local community initiatives to protect themselves from continuing armed hostilities of which they want no part in. Let them be, leave them be.
Unfortunately, on the other side of
the armed conflict, the NPA, through the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), has long adopted a hard-line negative policy against peace zones, especially “in areas where the NDFP is already governing or present” and which they view as characterized by “one-sidedness in favor of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) authority.” This should dispel any security establishment thought that peace zones are one-sided in favor of the NPA. It is actually a bigger challenge for the peace zone communities to get the CPP-NPA-NDFP to honor, recognize and respect peace zone declarations than it is to get the GRP side, both local and national, to do so.
Recognition and respect are important, but still more important is local community assertion for its autonomous self-protection.
Allow us what may appear to be a naïve proposal: Let peace zones be also safe spaces for peaceful competition between the GRP and the NDFP in the delivery of basic services, to serve the best interests of the local communities and become a win-win solution for all concerned.
Soliman M. Santos Jr. is a judge of the Regional Trial Court of Naga City since 2016. He has been a long-time peace advocate, since 1986; a proponent of the 1988 Naga Peace Zone; the drafter of the above-mentioned 2004 House Bill No. 1867 for a Peace Zones Policy Act; and the author of the 2005 book “Peace Zones in the Philippines: Concept, Policy and Instruments.” He is a batchmate of Secretary Esperon in the Philippine Science High School Class of 1965-1970.
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