September 12, 2016

Out of a quagmire

After more than half a decade of impasse, the resumption of formal peace talks between the Philippine government (GRP) and the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) last August 22-26 in Oslo, Norway is without a doubt a major, major breakthrough.

This historically significant development has taken place in the first 60 days of the new Duterte Administration. The initial round of talks has covered so much ground that had hitherto seemed impossible to achieve, if the obstructionist officials of the preceding Aquino administration were to be believed.

Even the weather during the talks was propitious. The sunny warmth of the Viking summer combined with the cool, crisp air in the mornings and late afternoons provided just the right clime for a very productive first formal meeting between the two Parties.

Spontaneity, warmth and camaraderie were on display from start to finish of the five-day talks. After all, most of the members of the GRP panel and even the Presidential Peace Adviser Sec. Jesus Dureza are old hands in the peace negotiations, particularly during the Ramos administration that saw 10 agreements sealed. The composition of the NDFP panel has been maintained and Chief Political Consultant Prof. Jose Ma. Sison continues to provide incomparable strategic and tactical guidance.  On a personal level, they are old friends or friends of old friends.

But more significantly, the release of 21 political prisoners, 19 of them NDFP peace consultants, and the prior agreement in informal talks last June 14 to 15 to cover the following five-point agenda 1) reaffirmation of previous agreements; 2) reconstitution of the JASIG list; 3) acceleration of peace negotiations; 4) amnesty; and 5) ceasefire has served to qualitatively raise the level of trust and confidence between the two sides.

I can’t help comparing the atmosphere this time around with that during the resumption of the peace talks in the dead of winter in Oslo, Norway in February 2011, during the administration of Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III. Witnessing the seeming collegiality, the nonbelligerent tone and the declarations of commitment from both sides to forge ahead with the substantive agenda of the negotiations, I wrote a political commentary to mark the occasion and titled it “Thaw in the Winter Freeze”.

Alas, the thaw was fleeting. The upbeat sound bytes in the opening statements of GRP peace adviser Teresita Deles and Chief Negotiator Atty. Alex Padilla were followed by crass attempts to set aside previous bilateral agreements while pushing the NDFP to declare an indefinite ceasefire whilst no concrete results had yet resulted from the talks to warrant it.

The release of NDFP consultants covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) was conditioned by the GRP on the “verification” of a list submitted by the NDFP and kept in the safekeeping of a Third Party Depositary agreed upon by the Parties.  When this encrypted digital list could not be opened due to corrupted keys resulting from the raid by the Dutch government on the office and residences of NDFP officials in Utrecht, The Netherlands, the GRP refused to reconstitute the list and unilaterally declared the JASIG “inoperative”.

The agreed upon “acceleration” of the meetings of the Reciprocal Working Committees on Socio-Economic Reforms (RWCs-SER) and the Reciprocal Working Groups on Political and Constitutional Reforms (RWGs-PCR) as well as the RWGs on End of Hostilities/Disposition of Forces (EOF/DOF) ground to a halt.

The GRP also refused to have meetings of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) to implement the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed in 1998 during the Estrada administration. GRP Negotiatior Padilla derisively called CARHRIHL a “propaganda document” of the NDFP.

While back channeling continued to try to revive the talks, with all sorts of creative formulas and even involving special presidential emissaries outside of the hardliners Deles and Padilla, nothing of significance happened.  Mr. Padilla even had the temerity to falsely claim to the Supreme Court that the peace negotiations had collapsed and therefore the conditional bail granted to NDFP consultants Satur Ocampo, Vic Ladlad, Randall Echaniz and Rafeal Baylosis should be cancelled forthwith meaning they should be sent back to jail.

The Aquino III regime raised the GRP's viciousness & treachery a notch higher when it caused the unprecedented conviction of three JASIG-protected consultants in succession. Eduardo Sarmiento, Emeterio Antalan & Leopoldo Caloza are now languishing in the New Bilibid Prison Maximum Security Compound, all on the basis of fabricated criminal offenses.

In light of the quickened pace in resuming the peace talks during the current Duterte administration and the substantial progress already made, it has become all the more clear that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed in the way of the negotiations originated from President Aquino himself.  Mr. Aquino was not interested in nor committed to - and by and large not even closely monitoring - the progress, or rather, non-progress of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. It appears now that he couldn’t care less.

As the visiting Norwegian special envoy to the Columbian peace process insightfully put it, the GRP-NDFP negotiations would have to wait for a new GRP leadership willing to resume the talks. And the new GRP leadership, to be quite honest about it, is indeed the decisive element that has jumpstarted the peace talks.

Which is not to say everything will be smooth sailing from hereon.

The negotiations over socio-economic reforms covers the NDFP demand that land monopoly by the elite be decisively ended in light of the series of failed, bogus land reform programs since the fifties.  Land reform advocates have always asserted that this is not just a matter of social justice for generations of landless peasants mired in rural poverty and backwardness, but of bringing about a industrial and self-reliant domestic economy attuned to the needs of the burgeoning population.  We cannot build a modern economy on the back of a feudal system of land ownership.

The NDFP also calls for a stop to the denationalization of the economy, the ongoing plunder of remaining natural resources and the destruction of the already fragile Philippine ecosystem as a consequence of the unbridled operations of multinational corporations and their domestic business partners.  With regard to economic policies, the NDFP is staunchly against the neoliberal economic policy framework of liberalization, deregulation and privatization.  It regards these policies as having deepened and worsened the retrograde character and maldevelopment of the national economy. It has also relegated the majority of Filipinos to the sorry lot of having to seek decent jobs abroad only to face exploitation, abuse and uncertainty and the prospect of returning to an even bleaker future back home.

Considering that the core interests of very powerful forces within and outside the GRP (and even those of foreign imperialist powers) are going to be the subject of hard bargaining, the outlook for the negotiations, while bright is not automatically going to be rosy.

Nonetheless there is cause for celebration with the peace negotiations now out of a quagmire. With the support of our people, there is more than a glimmer of hope that the peace talks can be brought to a successful conclusion despite seemingly overwhelming odds and a still rocky road ahead. #

Published by Business World
12 September 2016


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