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Political News Analysis – Philipines Conflict

Interviews done, and report written during March-April 2010

With the election of President Benigno S. Aquino III in June last year, the political climate has changed in the Philippines. Upon taking office, Aquino immediately offered a ceasefire and the resumption of peace negotiations with the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP-NPA), represented by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Although the ceasefire offer was first rejected, an informal meeting held last December led to a successful ceasefire during Christmas holidays, the longest break in hostilities in more than ten years. After that, a second round of informal talks was held in Oslo during January, and formal talks resumed again Feb 16-21. It would seem that Aquino's election should be a reason for enthusiasm among Filipinos, but positions range from cautious optimism to open disbelief.

The NPA conflict is 42 years old, making it one of the oldest conflicts in southwest Asia. Founded in 1969, it reached its most lethal peak in 1985 with 1,282 military or police, 2,134 NPA fighters and 1,362 civilians dead.

As a result of the peace talks, negotiations of the four major agenda points established in 1992 between the government and the NDF have been resumed. An agreement on human rights and international humanitarian law was signed in 1998. Now “the government will be negotiating on social economic reforms, political constitutional reforms, and then the disposition of forces,” explains Alex Padilla, chief negotiator of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

“Our logic is that now is the best time for the negotiations”

The government has set a 18-month deadline for the negotiations. “It’s doable because we’ve been negotiating for the past 24 years; we are the same peace panel, so are they. Our logic is that now is the best time for the negotiations,” Padilla says. “We must not only complete the peace negotiations this time, but also implement them within six years,” before the next elections.

Padilla adds that it will be difficult because “during the past 24 years there has also been a lot of mistrust and distrust among the parties.”

“The talks were suspended because the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime had violated so many agreements, which cost extrajudicial killings of more than 1,200 people and enforced disappearances of more than 200. That suspended the agreement on safety and immunity,” notes Luis G. Jalandoni, chairperson of the Negotiating Panel of the NDFP.

According to Jalandoni, the peace process is “possible but there are big differences between the two sides.” He adds “the first thing is to get to the agreement on social and economic reforms, because this will be addressing the roots of the armed conflict.”

But “there’s been a tendency to proclaim drastic reforms with very little follow through”, as explains Pete Trolio, Director of Business Intelligence at Pacific Strategies & Assessments, arguing that the government has been “unable to implement sustainable reforms in a number of sectors.”

“It’s a security problem, but it’s a very complex socio-political issue as well”

According to Trolio, “the isolated trend of negotiations is going to follow the same very unfruitful pattern that it has for the last several decades,” and " [even if] the numbers have decreased, the frequency and concentration of the NPA attacks and violence in the countryside has not”.

“It’s a security problem, but it’s a very complex socio-political issue as well,” Trolio says. Philippines has several different armed conflicts, from different Islamist groups, as well as the NPA. But they differ in nature and aims. “The communist struggle is more an indicative of the socio-economic problems of the country.”
“It isn’t realistic to finish the armed conflict within the period [established by the government]," opines Rommel Banlaoi, executive director at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. “It will take years, even decades, to address the reforms identified by the NDFP; to reform the political, economic and social problems of the Philippines.”

Nothing would prevent the resumption of the armed struggle “if those issues are not addressed by the future Administrations” Banlaoi points out. “They are not looking at the armed struggle as a last resource but they rather consider it as a key point in their ideological position. It is inherent in their strategy and ideology.”
According to both the government and the NDFP, the next goal is to reach an agreement regarding social and economic reforms. To that end, the Reciprocal Working Committees (RWC) on social and economic reforms will be meeting in June and again in August, when they hope to reach an agreement.

The needs of NDFP and the government appear to be incompatible. Both historically and due to the nature of Filipino politics, a socio-economic reform agreement seems difficult, especially within the constraints of the established deadlines. “As long as these things are lacking, there will always be a cause for the communists to rise up, and they already identified that the best [way] is through armed struggle,” concludes Trolio.

By Ferran Masip-Valls

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