Securing Good Faith
Goodwill and good faith probably account for 75 per cent of successful negotiations. President Aquino’s goodwill gesture of ordering the release of the “Morong 43,” the health workers arbitrarily detained by the military on grounds of being suspected members of the New People’s Army (NPA), will hopefully go a long way towards securing good faith in the negotiations from the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
The president will need all the skills—and luck--he can muster to cut the Gordian knot and deliver the state of peace that eluded his five predecessors. For in the days before the Christmas truce between the CPP-NPA goes into effect on Dec. 16, the military has resumed its bad habit of mounting assaults to grab territory in a shortsighted attempt to improve its negotiating position. As for the CPP, its having branded the current government the “US-Aquino regime”—i.e., “strategic enemy”--even before the latter assumed power in late June is not the kind of act that would inspire confidence that it regards the talks as more than just a ploy to gain breathing space in its struggle to seize state power.
Taming the Dogs of War
President Aquino enters the negotiations from a far more favorable position than former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Being quite unpopular, Arroyo saw her continued tenure as greatly dependent on her pleasing the military high command. She gave the green light to the military command’s policy of extra-judicial killings of activists and acquiesced in its lack of interest in pursuing peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA. In contrast, Aquino enjoys tremendous popularity and moral legitimacy, and this allows him to keep the generals at arms length--a fact demonstrated by his release of the Morong 43 in the teeth of opposition from the military.
President Aquino’s role in the peace process is akin to that of someone trying to pull apart two attack dogs that have been at it for so long that they consider peace abnormal and war normal. On the one hand, he has to keep the military on a short leash, threatening severe punishment for officers that push offensive operations during the ceasefire or engage in human rights violations. On the other, he will have to wean the CPP-NPA from its ideological addiction to war as the central revolutionary weapon. He is likely to be bitten by both sides in the process, and this will sorely try his patience. But he must persevere.
Mindanao: the Central Front
Yet the negotiations between NDF and the government must be seen in perspective. The NDF-government struggle is the minor theater of conflict. The NDF is a spent force after four decades, its military wing unable to expand its influence from peripheral parts of the country, its electoral weight dwindling, its ideological appeal on the wane despite the fact that the issues of justice and equality that initially propelled it remain urgent concerns of the population. The subjective conditions for a Mao-style revolutionary solution simply do not exist.
The major theater is Mindanao and the core challenge to peace there is arriving at a viable formula for self-determination for the Moro people. The liberation movement may appear to be badly split, between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but there is a massive constituency for endless war absent a settlement that gives the Moro people substantial self-rule. The conflict is also internationalized in a way the conflict with the NDF is not, involving as it does the Organization of the Islamic Conference(OIC), Malaysia, and the United States, each with its own set of interests, each backing its preferred insurgent group while pretending to assist the government to arrive at a peaceful settlement.
A breakthrough in Mindanao will not come about except with an act of political courage, and that is President Aquino’s breaking with the Christian chauvinist agenda that has been the central obstacle to a just settlement. It was this lack of courage on the part of the previous administration that scuttled what had been the most promising mechanism for a viable settlement to emerge in a long, long time: the Bangsa Moro Juridical Entity (BMJE). As with the military and the CPP, it is the president’s popularity and moral ascendancy that give him the leverage to face down the cultural chauvinists.
Beyond political courage, achieving peace in Mindanao will demand all the negotiating and diplomatic skills the new administration possesses. Yet there is no alternative to a peaceful settlement since this is a condition for real economic development in Mindanao, and the prospects of sustained economic ascent for the whole country are, in turn, integrally tied to the development of Mindanao.
Malacanang has reached out to the NDF and the CPP. It must also get the peace process rolling in Mindanao. The president has an able assistant in Ging Deles, the Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process. But his greatest asset is his tremendous popularity. He has an historic opportunity to translate that asset into a lasting peace.
*Walden Bello is representative of the party-list Akbayan in the House of Representatives.