The current peace talks in the Philippines may settle an armed dispute that has raged for 23 years
On September 1, 1992 at The Hague, the Netherlands, emissaries of the newly-elected Fidel Ramos government in the Philippines and the National Democratic Front (NDF) issued a joint statement declaring their intention to hold formal talks without preconditions towards a comprehensive political settlement of the 23 -year armed conflict in the Philippines.
The NDF, an umbrella group for various underground sectoral organizations, has been waging armed and unarmed struggles to attain what it calls a people's democratic government, implement genuine agrarian reform, and put an end to foreign domination of the country's economic, social, and political life.
The declaration was hailed by people's organizations, NGOs, parliamentarians, professionals and other sectors of society as a major step forward in the Filipino people's quest for a just, enduring, and liberating peace.
The downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 opened possibilities for the peaceful resolution of the civil war. The Cory Aquino government called for peace talks with the NDF and by November 1986 had concluded a 60-day ceasefire accord with the revolutionary coalition.
The NDF had approached the ceasefire agreement within the context of a negotiated political settlement. It looked to a more permanent cessation of armed hostilities as part of a comprehensive agreement that would resolve the "fundamental social causes" of the armed conflict. For the Aquino government, however, ending the conflict meant simply a cessation of hostilities. Thus the talks merely resulted in a preliminary ceasefire and safety and immunity guarantees for the NDF
The talks dragged on as both parties leveled accusations of ceasefire violations at each other and NDF leaders were arrested. The talks finally collapsed following the massacre of 18 farmers in a rally for land reform in front of the Presidential palace in Manila.
Still, the peacemakers have not given up. Since 1986 there have been many initiatives by leading citizens, some government officials, key institutions and communities, church bodies, NGOs, and people's organizations. The major churches, represented by the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, have taken stands on major issues such as the foreign debt, land reform, and human rights. Both are engaged in efforts to bring the parties in the conflict to the negotiating table. The Multi-Sectoral Peace Advocates (MSPA) persist in their efforts to mediate between the warring parties. And there are attempts by the Coalition for Peace (CFP) to build "peace zones" or "demilitarized zones" at the local level.
The human toll exacted by the 23-year-old war is grim. According to a study conducted by UNICEF in 1989, 4.5 million Filipino children have been killed, maimed, orphaned, traumatized, or displaced in the course of the insurgency.
The majority of these children are victims of the government's "total war" strategy. Begun by former President Corazon Aquino in early 1987 after talks with the NDF fell apart, the total war concept calls for an all-out ground and aerial war against the New Peoples Army (N PA), the rebel army of the NDF. However; given the NPA's sophisticated communication capabilities and quick mobility, the government's high-powered offensives usually affect only civilians.
The attack on Marag Valley, a fertile paradise north of Manila, is typical of thousands of other government military operations. Earlier this year; government airplanes dropped 230-kilogram bombs on the area inhabited primarily by 1,600 tribespeople. Smaller rockets and artillery fire were also used to clear the area of residents before foot soldiers moved into burn their houses.
While the government offensive has resulted in few NPA casualties, it rendered the area uninhabitable and prevented the guerrillas from blending in with the local inhabitants. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians have died, mostly children who contracted measles, malaria, and other diseases as a result of being evacuated from their homes.
On the pretext that food will find its way to the guerrillas, government military troops have blockaded the area of the evacuation to prevent non-governmental organizations from moving food and medicine into the area.
In addition to government led offensives, government armed paramilitary groups have added to the atrocities against civilians. Characterized by fierce anti-communism and often Christian fundamentalism, these groups prey on organized civilian groups such as labor unions, community cooperatives, fisher and farmer organizations, and even church groups deemed to be too "leftist" One group on the southern island of Mindanao called the "TadTads" hack their victims to pieces with long knives called "bolos." Their name literally means "chop-chop."
What are the prospects for peace under the new Philippine administration?
In his election pronouncements, Ramos was evasive when questioned about issues of human rights concern. In fact, he insisted on the intensification of the "total (war) approach through a comprehensive... program based on the partnership of civilians and the military police."
During an election speech, Ramos stated that the country's policies, "often times tilted in favor of civil liberties, tend to be exploited as a cover for subversives." He professed "less tolerance for agitators and saboteurs" and promised to "vigorously fight those who aim to destroy what we have worked so hard to build."
But upon ascendance to power, Ramos, who garnered only 23 per cent of the total votes cast, decided it best to respond to the Filipino people's call for a peaceful resolution of the armed conflict.
Early last month, he approved the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law, which had, in the past, caused the arrest and incarceration of people suspected of being involved in treasonous activities," including those working legitimately to promote social justice.
Critics have doubted the President's sincerity. They point out that while he supported the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law he proposed to reclassify rebellion as a capital crime which he said should be included in the list of 15 heinous crimes for which the death penalty might be imposed.
Furthermore, Ramos has not responded to the call for the elimination of the Supreme Court ruling that allowed for the warrantless arrest of people suspected of subversive activities.
Despite the track record of President Ramos, there is hope that the agreement signed in the Hague will be the beginning of the end of Asia's longest lasting insurgency. Both the NDF and the government agreed that the proposed peace agenda should include the issues of human rights, socioeconomic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and cessation of hostilities.
To date, the five-point declaration has been signed and approved by the NDF chairperson, but not by President Ramos. Instead, the war expert reiterated his offer of amnesty to political detainees. He also formed the National Unification Commission "to formalize the offer of peace initiatives, including amnesty.
"If there are no substantive economic, electoral, and constitutional reforms, we cannot solve the armed conflict," said Luis Jalandoni, vice-chairperson of the NDF, when asked how he viewed the President's amnesty offer.
Dale Hildebrand is director of the Ontario Council for International Cooperation. Lani Montreal is a freelance journalist living in Toronto, Ric Esguerra is an instructor in economics at the University of the Philippines.