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Peace hopes for Filipino communist rebels

Chase WinterJune 25, 2016

The Philippine government and Maoist rebels are confident that talks will end a half-century conflict that has killed 40,000 people. The optimism is reinforced by established trust between the president-elect and rebels.

Philippinen New People's Army
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Expectations are high that the Philippines will be able to resolve one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies.

The incoming administration of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has not wasted time engaging with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), an umbrella group of 18 outlawed organizations, including the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA).

Government representatives and the Netherlands-based exiled NDFP have agreed to restart nearly three decades of on-and-off peace negotiations at the end of July. The previous round stalled in 2013, when President Benigno Aquino, who is scheduled to step down on June 30, halted negotiations and refused to release political prisoners.

Blueprint for talks

Mediated by Norway, talks between the NDFP and the incoming administration led to an agreement on several major sticking points in mid-June. The two sides agreed to discuss amnesty for political prisoners, an interim ceasefire and a timeline for further talks. Details of social and economic reforms will be discussed during peace negotiations, which the government hopes to complete within nine to 12 months.

The sides also reaffirmed all agreements made during previous negotiations, and, importantly, the reconstitution of the 1995 Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, or JASIG.

JASIG provides safety and immunity to all people involved in the peace process, including 20 NDFP negotiators put in prison by Aquino's government in violation of the agreement. Releasing the 20 peace consultants would meet one of the communists' key demands. More than 500 political prisoners could also be released with parliamentary approval.

A cozy history

Speaking to DW by phone from the Netherlands, Luis Jalandoni, the NDFP's chief negotiator, said the agreement inked in Oslo constituted an important first step - one of many that will be needed to reach lasting peace in the Philippines.

"We have high expectations the talks will move forward," Jalandoni said, "because the incoming Duterte government has said it wants to end conflict and cooperate."

Though peace talks anywhere face a number of hurdles, negotiations to end the conflict in the Philippines are underpinned by a unique set of circumstances based on a long history of contact between Duterte and the communists.

During more than a quarter of a century as mayor of Davao, the country's second largest city, the left-leaning Duterte kept a line open to the communists on Mindanao island - and even cooperated with them from time to time. At one point in the 1960s, he was a student of Jose Sison, the founder of the CPP.

Philippinen Luis Jalandoni
Jalandoni said there were "high expectations" ahead of talksImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis

"In any negotiation a very important aspect is mutual trust between the negotiating personalities," Silvestre Bello, the incoming labor secretary and chief government negotiator, told DW. "The president is giving his full trust and confidence in the NDFP leadership, and also the NDFP leadership having strong confidence in our president the prospect of reaching peace is very good."

Duterte's closeness to the NDFP/CPP is underscored by Duterte's penchant for visiting communist-controlled villages and even negotiating personally with NPA guerrillas for the release of kidnapped police.

"We have been dealing with Duterte in different ways of cooperation for more than 25 years," Jalandoni said, adding that Duterte remains "very influential in Mindanao and has shown concrete progress" in Davao City.

"The cooperation that we are working on now has a basis historically since the 1980s," Jalandoni said, noting that he has had dinner with Duterte on a number of occasions. "Duterte has shown a lot of moves and interests in reaching a solution," he added.

Philippinen Präsidentschaftskandidat Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte has vowed to end all insurgencies in the countryImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Marquez

As mayor, Duterte built a reputation for being hard on crime, a policy that earned him criticism for rights abuses but also praise for turning Davao into a safe city with better services. He was also known for providing services and representing ethnic and religious groups, as well as promoting women's rights. These are all policies that earned him the trust of communists, while, as the first president from Mindanao, Duterte is also viewed as somewhat of a Manila outsider.

An olive branch

As a first goodwill measure, Duterte has announced the appointment of two ministers to his cabinet who were proposed by the NDFP. Rafael Mariano, a militant peasant leader, will head up the Department of Agrarian Reform, while the Department of Social Welfare will be led by the professor Judy Taguiwalo.

The cabinet positions are key priority areas for the communists, who would like to break up large landholdings, end feudal relationships and distribute land to people who have been excluded by the current system.

The New People's Army's "foot soldiers understand they and their families will benefit from land reform," Jalandoni said. According to the military, the NPA has about 4,000 guerillas today, but Jalandoni put the number at 10,000 plus thousands of "people's militia" across a majority of the Philippines' provinces.

Duterte has also appointed an anti-mining advocate to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The communists are opposed to foreign mining and resource extraction, which they have targeted. Meanwhile, Bello, the peace negotiator, will lead the Department of Labor.

Child Labor in the Philippines

These four departments will be responsible for implementing policies as part of the "social and economic" reform that comes with the peace process, Bello said.

Stumbling blocks

Patricio Abinales, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who grew up on Mindanao, told DW that, despite the optimism about the peace process, a number of potential stumbling blocks remain.

For one, Abinales said, the communists have not renounced their goal of seizing the state and setting up a "dictatorship of the proletariat" - nor have they shown any intention to demobilize the NPA.

"I doubt if the Armed Forces of the Philippines will totally agree to this arrangement where the NPA does not demobilize or that CPP not renounce armed struggle," Abinales said, adding that the legislature may not go along with all of Duterte's plans.

"Duterte may have a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate," Abinales said, "but I am not sure if they also could easily pass a law legitimizing whatever agreement both sides sign."

As happens when any rebel group transitions to a governance role, there is always a difference between fighting and ruling. So, though pro-NDFP ministers may run two departments, there will also be pressure for them to function.

"This is a party that is not used to responding to different interests, including those social forces that it may strongly disagree with," Abinales said.

Agrarian reform, for example, will involve negotiating and compromising with landed elites, local politicians and even international multilateral aid agencies, he said.

Jalandoni said the communists would be "vigilant" against landlords, mining companies and established business interests - all of which he described as being against peace negotiations.

According to Stanford University's Mapping Militant Organizations project, peace talks in the past were hampered by divisions between the NDFP in the Netherlands and the CPP-NPA leadership in the Philippines. This brings up questions about whether the armed communist forces on the ground would sign up to an agreement reached between the exiles and the government.

Abinales said there would be constant tensions in the NDFP between those "working inside government versus those trying to overthrow that same government."

Bello recognized divisions between the exiles and leadership on the ground has traditionally been an issue, but said it would not impact the talks.

"Our military intelligence has determined that the people we are talking to have almost complete control over forces in the Philippines," he said. "There may be some feud between personalities, but by and large the group of (CPP founder) Sison and Jalandoni have control over their forces."