November 28, 2017

Duterte’s 180-degree turn

In a matter of days, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has made a 180 degree turn in policy regarding peace negotiations with the revolutionary movement represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines or NDFP that probably left even the government negotiating panel dumbstruck.

In a series of statements starting November 18 Duterte declared that he would call off the GRP-NDFP peace talks, tag the CPP/NPA as “terrorists” and order the rearrest of NDFP consultants who had been released from prison to participate in the talks. By November 22, OPAPP Sec Dureza announced that all meetings with the NDFP peace panel were called off.  And by November 23, Duterte issued Proclamation 360 “terminating” the peace negotiations.

Unknown to most, the 5th round of formal talks, aborted last May in the wake of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, was slated to resume November 25 to 27 in Norway. Before this, the two parties held backchannel meetings in the first week of October on how to restart the formal talks. The only hint that Duterte was entertaining a possible resumption was a casual remark to this effect upon the the release of a police office by the NPA in Mindanao.

In October bilateral teams of the Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) worked double-time on the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER). Had the 5th round pushed through, an unprecedented breakthrough would have taken place: a draft joint agreement initialed by the GRP and NDFP CASER-RWCs covering agrarian reform and rural development (ARRD) as well as national industrialization and economic development (NIED) would have been approved by the two peace panels.  If all went well, the entire CASER would be fast tracked to completion by the first quarter of 2018, to be closely followed by accelerated negotiations on political and constitutional reforms (PCR), and a common draft General Amnesty Proclamation, something already dangled by Duterte to the NDFP even before he was sworn into office and which the NDFP had always made clear was their highest priority.

On top of these, stand down orders of both government and NPA forces would have been enforced, while earnest discussion on coordinated unilateral ceasefires would take place, the parameters of which would be less prone to violations, sabotage or provocations from either side than in the previous 6-month ceasefire.

To protect the delicate status of the negotiations from “peace spoilers”, the two sides agreed not to make any statements to the press until substantial progress had been achieved. In the face of such a looming advance in the peace talks, why did Duterte torpedo all the painstaking efforts of his own peace panel by issuing such seemingly rash and brash statements?

Duterte blamed the CPP/NPA for continuing attacks against the AFP and PNP that victimized civilians caught in the crossfire.  But since there is no existing ceasefire of any kind, such clashes are bound to happen.  Objectively speaking, there are ongoing peace negotiations precisely because there is an ongoing armed conflict.

NDFP pointed out that so many innocent civilians, accused to be NPA or supporting the NPA, had been killed in the course of the GRP’s counterinsurgency campaign but the NDFP had never made this a reason for abandoning the talks.

Subsequently Duterte said that the CPP/NPA/NDFP were making demands that he could not accede to.  He made reference to how his order to release 19 NDFP consultants had been very generous and had been met with stern disapproval by the AFP and DND top officials.  (Duterte had earlier said that he could not release a significant number of political prisoners since he would lose bargaining chips in the peace negotiations.) Duterte’s reneging on his promise to release political prisoners as repeatedly discussed and agreed upon in the first to the fourth round of talks, stands as the major obstacle to the implementation of what had been agreed upon in the most recent backchannel talks.

On November 21, Duterte issued Memorandum No. 16 directing the NEDA to “exert utmost efforts to lift or ease restrictions on certain investment areas … with limited foreign participation”.  This memorandum goes against the CASER provision on national industrialization agreed upon in the bilateral meetings. So it would appear that the GRP’s economic managers, with Duterte’s approval, have never had any intention of being bound by the CASER.

Duterte’s latest explanation is that the NDFP was demanding that the GRP form a “coalition government” with it, something he could not give as this would be tantamount to an infringement on the sovereignty of the GRP.  A quick fact check however shows that it was Duterte who first made mention of his willingness to offer a “coalition government” with the NDFP as an outcome of the peace negotiations.  Moreover, in none of the drafts on PCR that the NDFP has submitted to the GRP does the term “coalition government” ever appear.

In reality, Duterte’s explanations as to why he has cancelled talks with the NDFP just don’t wash. One must look at other developments and context to find the answers.

For one, Duterte has unfolded as completely reactionary despite his posturing as a Leftist and a socialist and lately, his threat to impose a “revolutionary government”.  He has not implemented a single one of the socio-economic reforms he promised. He has upheld the vested interests of the oligarchs and foreign big business. Despite sidling up to China and Russia to ask for economic and military aid, Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” has not changed lopsided economic, political and military relations with the US. And his much vaunted “war on drugs” has only served to satisfy his bloodlust for small time drug users and pushers while suspected drug lords like his son go scot free.

For another, Duterte’s authoritarian bent and militarism has become fully unmasked.  He brooks no criticism. He is vindictive and uses his vast powers as president to go after his perceived enemies. He would use the state’s full coercive powers – the police, the military, the justice system – in a spree of extrajudicial killing, in declaring an unwarranted martial law, in destroying Marawi City purportedly to crush ISIS-inspired terrorists, in ratcheting up counterinsurgency operations against the NPA and in cracking down on activists and all opposition.  His solution to deeply entrenched social problems is a mailed fist.

Duterte is now itching to declare a “revolutionary government” that is nothing but an open fascist dictatorship.  It stands to reason that there is no room for peace negotiations in such a dire scenario.  #

Published in Business World
27 November 2017