Peace Zones

Idle Dream or Peacemakers' Building Blocks?

By David Wurfel | 1990-04-01 12:00:00

The overseas press today portrays the Philippines as guerrillas fighting, poverty festering, officers plotting and politicians awash in corruption. But this is only part of the story. Some amazingly courageous men and women are trying to use Philippine culture, Christian doctrine, and the power of reason to bring peace. Their primary ally is the war weariness of the Filipino people.

Revolutionary Fatigue

The election in 1986 of Corazon Aquino, who pledged to end the insurgency peacefully, was a cause of great hope. Negotiations between the government and the political umbrella of the Communist-led New People's army-the National Democratic Front (NDF)-soon achieved a 60-day cease-fire, but when negotiations opened toward a permanent cease-fire and political settlement, the NDF took a hard line, as did the government. Each side wanted the other to surrender. In January the talks collapsed and fighting resumed, more intense than ever. But neither side recognized how deep was the longing for peace among the citizenry. Among the millions of supporters of the NDF a "revolutionary fatigue" became noticeable. No foreign power provided them aid. Some progressive intellectuals who had sympathized with them criticized the decision to re-emphasize armed struggle. Many in the church who had supported Cory Aquino were critical of her for too quickly "unleashing" the military against the insurgents.

Coalition for Peace

In 1987 peace-mongers came together as the Coalition for Peace, headquartered in Manila. Echoed by Catholic and Protestant church bodies, it petitioned for a new cease-fire. Although hostilities ceased over Christmas and New Year, on the question of a longer cease-fire government and revolutionary leaders alike were unyielding. Each favored an end to the fighting if the other side would surrender. The military expanded the underpaid, undisciplined auxiliary forces, thus ensuring more human rights violations.

In July 1988 the Coalition for Peace proposed the creation of "zones of peace." This was consistent with an editorial in the Manila Chronicle that noted "a growing clamor among the Filipino people for a grassroots approach to peace in the light of the realization that a national and institutional approach is not yet possible." This was endorsed by a committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference, but spokespersons for the revolution were sceptical. Said Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison, "localized cease-fires could be used only to induce regional or local leaders of the revolutionary movement to...break away from their central leadership." (His very opposition may have concealed a fear that local leaders would be well inclined toward the proposal.) Government spokespersons hardly bothered to notice the announcement.

The search for local initiatives was prodded by the holding of elections for local officials in January 1988, which transferred some power away from the center. Soon President Aquino decreed the formation of "peace and order councils" headed by governors and mayors, to coordinate counter-insurgency efforts. Malaya editorialized that this was a "formula for war, not for peace." Peace activists looked to some of the locally elected officials, however, for leadership toward peace. Local professionals organized "Hearts of Peace" (HOPE) in Naga City.

The move was most successful in Sagada where tribal people declared the town off-limits to both the AFP and the NPA. They were able to enforce the ban for some while. In Negros Occidental, unfortunately, there was no such unity, despite church leadership. The province is sharply polarized between sugar planters and workers and their respective allies (which includes the military on one side and the NPA on the other).

HOPE in Naga

Naga City was more typical of the Philippines as a whole. It lacked either the sharp class divisions of Negros or the unity of a tribal minority in Sagada. It was a city of more than 100,000, the major commercial and administrative center of the region, also including in its boundaries the surrounding rural areas. Its ecclesiastical importance in a Catholic Philippines was confirmed by the residence of an archbishop. However, while there is considerable support for the idea, no negotiated cease-fire or demilitarized zone has yet been achieved in Naga.

This is certainly not for lack of careful formulation of the proposal. Leadership is vigorous, imaginative and persistent. Though support covers a wide spectrum, the leadership primarily represents the Christian non-Communist left. HOPE described itself in a May 1988 statement.

"Even as HOPE opts for the ways of peace and non-violence, it is able to distinguish between structural and repressive violence, on the one hand, and revolutionary violence on the other. HOPE is critical of militarist approaches to the resolution of social injustice. Yet it cannot be too quick in condemning those who are driven to take up arms when victims of injustice are denied meaningful redress or protection... The obstacles to peace spring from the way we think and are rooted in the way our society is organized."

Headbands and Flags

HOPE made its biggest splash in 1988 by proposing a peace zone during the annual city fiesta. Unable to get negotiations between the contending armed forces, HOPE declared a "unilateral people's cease-fire" for the whole province after a march to the plaza. The NPA responded with its own "unilateral cease-fire" for Naga City only, but did attack a coconut mill outside the city during the fiesta. The local military commander did not respond at all; there was a great show of arms during the "military parade," a part of the fiesta. But at least there were no armed incidents within city boundaries during fiesta days. The "people's cease-fire" had been endorsed by the city superintendent of schools (in most communities a very cautious soul) and was given good coverage by most local radio stations and newspapers. HOPE participated with flair in two of the fiesta parades, handing out peace headbands and flags. During the military parade peace activists unfurled a huge banner from a roof top along the route which declared "Food, Not Arms." HOPE's efforts received no endorsement from the Archbishop of Naga.

Elusive Dove?

Nevertheless HOPE had unquestionably broadened the "peace constituency." On February 2, 1989 HOPE issued an appeal for Naga City to become a "Permanent Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN)." The most essential component was to be a cease-fire between the AFP and the NPA. Also included were no public displays of firearms, except by police, dismantling of private armies and paramilitary units (allied to the AFP), banning of NPA assassination squads, sanctuary for wounded combatants (benefitting primarily the NPA), and a "zone of pluralism and dialogue." In answer to the query from the Right, "Will the NPA not take advantage of the Peace Zone?" HOPE pointed out that "any side which violated the agreements on the peace zone-would be subject to certain sanctions" and lose popular support.

To this proposal the military, in the person of Philippine Constabulary Provincial Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rufo Pulido, responded in a 12-page latter, revealing how difficult the attainment of permanent peace zone would be. The eloquent Col. Pulido began on a very positive note: "We salute the Hearts of Peace, an organization which is committed to the exploration of ways and means whereby the elusive Dove of Peace may be induced to settle permanently here in Naga City." Then he took off the gloves. HOPE was accused of "sponsoring-the Communist rebels" without being able to "guarantee" that they would act peacefully. As for building trust, the Colonel insisted that "truth is a Christian virtue that is totally absent from godless, atheistic Communism." A part of the HOPE position paper which suggested that ZOPFAN might include providing "rest and recreation for the combatants" was subjected to some of his most bitter ridicule.

Most revealing to this observer was the vehemence of the counterattack against HOPE's proposal for a "zone of pluralism and dialogue." Said Col. Pulido, this "means that there is not only one, but possibly two or more, political ideologies which are good for the Filipino people. In practice it will mean allowing any and all kinds of ideas,-even proscribed and prohibited ones, to be preached and practiced-[This is] a very clever device by pro-Communist sophists-who probably think that Democracy and Communism can flourish side by side-No! Democracy and Communism can never coexist! -Why should we dialogue with Communists and NPAs who already are on the run, whose defeat is already imminent?"

Weak Archbishop

HOPE's leaders are undaunted, though they know that right wing hit-squads linked to the military have assassinated people for less threatening actions than peacemongering. HOPE is handicapped by the virulent anti-Communism which was reinvigorated in 1987 by President Aquino and many in the Catholic hierarchy. Their greatest obstacle is the reluctance of the Archbishop of Naga to endorse their efforts. He is probably the person with the greatest influence on government decisions in the Naga area.

HOPE's leaders are among the unsung heroes and heroines of the peace movement worldwide. We who enjoy the peace and security of Canadian society should support their work.

David Wurfel is a professor of Political Science at University of Windsor.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1990, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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