January 20, 2011

Welcome breakthrough

"We look at our brothers and sisters in the NDF as not being enemies nor terrorists but rather as partners in trying to build this nation again…knowing their history of struggle..." - Alex Padilla, head, Philippine Government peace panel

"It is an important endeavor to try to achieve a just and lasting peace through a negotiated settlement...we do not underestimate the difficulties but we are willing to grab the opportunities and challenges.” - Luis Jalandoni, head, NDFP peace panel

Upbeat statements from both Messrs. Padilla and Jalandoni auger well for the resumption of the formal peace talks on February 15 to 21. The talks had been stalled since 2004.

It will be recalled that upon the behest of the Arroyo regime, the United States, the European Union and several other countries categorized the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, as well as NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison as “terrorist”, thus throwing a monkey wrench into the already faltering peace process.

The signing of the joint statement as a result of the preliminary talks is a departure from the practice of the government panel under the previous regime. The latter had engaged several times in backdoor talks but whenever it came to the point of signing a communiqué to cement the agreements, it would decline citing “higher-ups”.

The joint communiqué on the preliminary talks is short and sweet but is packed with several firsts.

For the first time in 6 years, both parties agreed to reaffirm the validity and effectivity of all prior bilateral agreements, reconvene the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC), resume negotiations on the Comprehensive Agreement on Socioeconomic Reforms (CASER) and set up working groups to start discussions on Political and Constitutional Reforms (PCR).

The two parties also agreed to work on appropriate measures to enable NDFP consultants and other JASIG-protected persons who are either detained or facing warrants of arrest to again freely and safely participate in the talks and negotiations.

For the first time “(b)oth panels agreed to recommend to their principals a ceasefire from February 15 to 21, 2011 as reciprocal goodwill measure to mark the resumption of formal talks after so many years.”

As far as we can recall this agreement is unprecedented.

As a backdrop, in November 2008 during one of the informal talks, the NDFP panel had already agreed to have a limited ceasefire during actual formal talks. However when this was included in the draft agreement for signing, the government panel changed the term to "formal negotiations". The NDFP objected stating that this ambiguity could be interpreted to mean that such a ceasefire will cover the period when there are no talks, e.g. if they are suspended, even as negotiations are technically ongoing.

The reconvening of the JMC, the agreed upon mechanism under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) for implementing the landmark accord, is a big breakthrough.

The JMC was formed, operationalized and first convened in the Oslo formal talks in February and June 2004. However, for the next six and a half years the GRP refused to convene it, arguing lamely that there was no point in the JMC meeting when there were no formal talks and more so after it unilaterally suspended the formal talks in August 2005. Nonetheless, there is nothing in the CARHRIHL which says the JMC should or could not meet when the formal talks are recessed or suspended.

This constitutes a litmus test of the determination of the Aquino government to investigate and render justice on HR and IHL violations of the Arroyo regime, not to mention its own, especially since many of the perpetrators are largely believed to still be in active service within the AFP and PNP. This will also test how serious is the avowed focus on human rights in the new counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bayanihan.

In addition, the reconvening of the Reciprocal Working Committee on Socioeconomic Reforms (RWC-SER) is another major step in the right direction. Negotiations on a CASER had already begun in April and June 2001. The two panels took this up again in the June 2004 formal talks but like the JMC it became hostage to the government’s subsequent suspension of formal talks.

Honest to goodness negotiations on CASER creates an extraordinary opening and arena for serious public discourse on the roots of poverty, non-development, the persistent economic and social crises, and a window for forging broad national consensus on what the problems are and how to address and solve these.

Needless to say, a successfully negotiated CASER would set into motion a seismic change in the political configuration seeing as this would constitute one of the major planks in a comprehensive peace settlement.

The government panel says it is aiming for an agreement on SER in six months and the political settlement in three years so that there would be enough time to implement the reforms under the current administration's term.

There is no reason to believe the NDFP is not serious in achieving basic reforms. Even political analysts harboring opposing viewpoints concede that it is the only major political formation that has a comprehensive program for achieving national independence, genuine democracy, social justice and economic development, and has consistently stood by and fought for this program over the decades.

The six-month timetable the GPH panel proposes for finishing talks on socioeconomic reforms appear to be next to impossible, but the NDFP panel itself has not ruled it out.

Whether this is an overly optimistic estimate or a cautiously realistic one remains to be seen.

The important thing is that both parties have publicly announced their commitment to work double time in undertaking this important endeavor, made more urgent and pressing by the continuing global and domestic economic crunch.

Both panels must be credited for being flexible, creative and willing to meet halfway just so mutually acceptable agreements could be reached in this groundbreaking effort under the new Aquino administration. The painstaking efforts and sustained positive role of the Norwegian government as Third Party Facilitator must also be acknowledged and lauded.

Certainly, the usual spoilers -- militarists, big business, foreign interests who profit immensely under the present system -- will continue to attempt to stall the talks and derail the negotiations. More than ever, the vigilance and participation of the public becomes crucial in ensuring that they do not succeed as they had for the past six years. #

Published in Business World
21-22 January 2011

January 12, 2011

Illusions and real prospects

The past year seemed to usher marked change with the ending of one of the most despised presidencies since the Marcos dictatorship and the inauguration of one steeped in the rhetoric of reform and aglow with the mystique of the new president’s larger-than-life parents, both of whom had figured prominently in the struggle to topple the dictator.

The people heaved a sigh of relief that time, options and machinations had run out for the former Malacañang occupant: the pre-set national elections finally pried Mrs. Arroyo loose from her hold on the presidency whilst repeated attempts to oust her via a people’s uprising cum military withdrawal of support had unfortunately failed.

The populist campaign taglines and slogans, repeated and magnified by billions worth of paid advertisements as well as sympathetic mass media coverage helped generate a gigantic cloud of illusions about forthcoming change in politics and society once a new leadership was elected.

The illusions have persisted, fostered by the people’s unquenchable thirst for a genuine overhauling of the rotten system and great expectations stoked by the new regime’s patrons, pillars and drumbeaters.

But the changes so far exhibited by the Aquino regime have been superficial, insubstantial and tend to cover up the real causes of the chronic crisis besetting Philippine society.

After the elections, extra-judicial killings continued. No corruption, electoral fraud nor human rights violations cases were filed against Mrs. Arroyo and her subalterns.

The call for genuine land reform does not merit presidential attention; Hacienda Luisita continues to be mired in the muck of social injustice and political noblesse oblige.

The anti-national and anti-people economic policies of deregulation, privatization and liberalization have been recycled as pro-development and anti-poverty. The World Bank-peddled Conditional Cash Transfer program implemented by the Arroyo regime with no significant impact has been ambitiously expanded and given a reformist spin.

The Hong Kong hostage crisis and the jueteng exposes revealed both the fractiousness of the new regime and who are the new untouchables.

President Aquino’s US trip highlighted the same dependence on foreign investments, loans and aid to prop up the ailing economy at the expense of upholding and protecting national sovereignty and patrimony.

With the continuing global depression, the World Bank itself had advised so-called developing countries such as the Philippines to focus on their internal markets and productive sectors and reduce reliance on the vagaries of foreign markets. It would seem that the Aquino administration is oblivious to these adverse global conditions.

As to foreign policy, the Aquino government appears content to follow the baton of the US. Mr. Aquino has reiterated the need for continuing US-Philippine “special relations” and acknowledged the preeminence of the US as lone Superpower whose geopolitical interests dwarf and subsume those of its former colony.

To illustrate, in the midst of the armed provocations and counter-reactions in the Korean peninsula between the two still warring parties and the interventionism exhibited by the US, the government has been content to echo the US line regarding North Korea’s “belligerence”. It acquiesces and justifies the mounting of US-South Korea joint war exercises involving tens of thousands of troops, a score of warships, hundreds of aircraft and live-fire exercises.

Recently the Aquino government unveiled its new counter-insurgency plan dubbed Oplan Bayanihan replacing the notoriously murderous Oplan Bantay Laya of the previous regime.

It purports to shift the emphasis from offensive military operations and campaigns to operations that support development and uphold human rights in order to "win the hearts and minds" of the populace in rebel-influenced if not controlled areas. But there is neither novelty nor originality in this, having been evidently lifted from the 2009 US State Department's Counter-insurgency Guide.

The upcoming talks between the GRP and NDFP peace negotiating panels on January 14 to 19 preparatory to the resumption of formal peace talks in February is an opening that could lead to what now appears to be the most likely, if not the only remaining avenue, short of revolutionary armed struggle, for the introduction of reforms that strike at the roots of the social crisis.

If the preliminary talks go well, the formal talks are expected to immediately tackle the operationalization of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) and the resumption of negotiations on Social and Economic Reforms (SER).

Operationalizing the JMC means acting on or addressing the numerous complaints of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law which have been collected and semi-processed by the Joint Secretariat of the JMC since 2004.

It thus provides an unusual opportunity for the Aquino government and the AFP to show they are serious about Oplan Bayanihan giving primacy to the observance of human rights. They should see the JMC as a fitting mechanism to cleanse the ranks of the AFP of human rights violators and scalawags.

While negotiations on SER still need to break out from the inertia of the past and are understandably more complicated, progress on the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), the first substantive agreement, can provide the confidence and much needed conducive atmosphere for the talks to gain momentum.

The negotiations on the SER have an even greater significance and potential impact on the people’s movement for genuine change. While the existing proposed drafts from both Parties are more than a decade old, they nevertheless identify, albeit to different degrees, the basic social problems that in truth are the main roots of the social crisis and armed conflict.

The SER negotiations thus provide a golden opportunity to open up and generate a broad and comprehensive discourse on the roots of poverty, inequity and social injustice beyond corruption or malgovernance, and perhaps the brightest if not the only prospect for achieving a national consensus on how to solve these festering problems. #

Published in Business World

7-8 January 2011