Tomorrow, peace talks are set to resume between the Philippine Government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) – representing member organisation, the Communist Party of the Philppines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) – in yet another attempt to halt the running sore of insurgency that’s spanned the terms of five presidents. Given the history of failure in reaching a peace settlement, however, few hold out any real hope that this time it will bear fruit.
As usual, the background to these talks, to be held in Oslo, Norway, is marred by the ongoing conflict. On Thursday, two soldiers and 10 communist rebels were killed in clashes at General Nakar, a small town in Quezon province. The following day, around 100 CPP members and supporters demonstrated outside the presidential palace of Malacañang in the capital, Manila, in a lightning rally that shouted for revolution.
Meanwhile, it seems there’s little appetite for a ceasefire which would give the upcoming talks at least a semblance of sincerity. What’s happening, in fact, is what always happens when the two sides are due to meet to discuss peace. Demands are put forward by both parties outlining their respective cease-fire requirements – meaning that the two sides will continue fighting as they sit down together to discuss an illusory willingness for peace.
And so, the first item on the Oslo agenda will be to reach some kind of accommodation on the terms for a cease fire. And that’s likely to be difficult in itself given the history of failure surrounding previous cease fires.
In fact the last peace talks in the Netherlands in February collapsed after rebel NPA fighters killed three unarmed soldiers at Kibalabag, Bukidnon province in northern Mindanao while hostilities were on hold. Wearing civilian clothes, the troops were ambushed and died in a hail of bullets as they were returning to camp after collecting their allowances.
This needless attack threatened to put an end to a resumption of talks. And any repetition of that during these talks will almost certainly curtail the chance of the two sides coming together again in the foreseeable future. President Rodrigo Duterte’s patience at that point would almost certainly run out.
Indeed a month ago, this, the fourth round of peace talks with the communists under this administration looked like they would never take place. The Bukidnon incident was the last in a series of cease-fire violations perpetrated by the NPA but it was, in the words of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, “the final straw”.
The fact is, the Maoist NPA – the CPP’s military wing – has never shown any real commitment to peace. In fact, it’s difficult to work out which communist faction is really in charge; for while the NDF and the CPP seem ready always to “talk peace”, the NPA demands to hold onto its arms. In fact, the decommissioning of those arms in any future settlement seems to be a real sticking point.
This conflict has been going on since 1968 – in other words for nearly half a century – and it’s no nearer reaching a solution. To date, there have been more than 40 rounds of talks between the two sides. In that time some 40,000 people have died in what is one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts. The NPA’s current troop strength is estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000, but as with all rebel movements its membership is fractured by in-fighting and factional differences – the usual hardliners-versus-moderates syndrome.
While it was de-listed as a terrorist organisation by the previous Philippine administration under President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, the NPA remains designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department and as a ‘terrorist group’ according to the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The Duterte government is under no illusions regarding the odds of success from the Oslo meetings. Warning that there could be no assurances that the government will attain its objectives, Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said: “We expect the discussion in this round of talks to be very difficult and exacting”.
And they will be, particularly if they start from where they left off in February with the communists demanding the release of around 400 imprisoned guerrilla fighters. That’s what shattered the cease fire, brought the Netherlands’ talks to an abrupt end and threatened any resumption of talks.
Based on the track record, we hold out little hope for any meaningful breakthrough from Oslo. The problem is that the same old barriers to reaching a solution – including the NDF’s demand for prisoner releases and “revolutionary taxes” levied by the CCP-NPA – still exist. Indeed, Duterte said after the last failure that achieving a peace settlement with the communists seemed impossible within his generation.
Furthermore, with the manpower resources of the Philippine military stretched – its beefed-up campaign to defeat Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists in and around the southern island of Mindanao; its supplementary role in the War on Drugs – the communists might feel that the government is reluctant to instigate a major offensive against them at this time. And if that’s the case, it would embolden them to hold out in making and real concessions.
And while we all hope that this time it will be different, it’s hard to see how it can be. The language of the communists remains hard line; the NPA remains battle ready and uncompromising; their positions remain entrenched. This is old-school, 1960s-style Maoist communism and all that would seem to outweigh the desire for peace.
The first thing to watch for is how long it takes for the two sides to agree to bilateral terms for a ceasefire – the talks can’t resume until the guns go silent. The second thing to watch for is how long the ceasefire holds.