STREETWISE:Peace Talks 101

By Carol P. Araullo

The significance of peace talks resumption between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the revolutionary umbrella organization that includes the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), is not as easy to appreciate and be enthused about as one would think. The subject matter is complex and its prolonged history full of twists and turns. Many times, optimistic rhetoric has given way to recrimination and impasses.

Many commonly raised questions in the public sphere are infused with cynicism that any kind of reasonable and realizable agreement can be reached by two diametrically opposed and warring parties. Yet as borne out by experience, common ground can indeed be found to move the talks forward and arrive at bilateral agreements beneficial to the people, and maybe even reach the point of truce and alliance between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the NDFP in the short to medium term, without either one surrendering to the other at the negotiating table.

But there must be a basic commitment to pursuing peace negotiations not just to still the guns of war but to address its underlying causes.

For those who view the resort to armed struggle to bring about societal change as unnecessary, believe that the long-running armed conflict merely exacerbates poverty and underdevelopment, and deem the overriding goal of the talks should be to get the CPP-NPA to lay down their arms and join the political “mainstream,” peace talks can be a desirable and viable way to arrive at a political settlement in a conflict that has been going on for close to five decades.

For those who believe that armed revolution is necessary to overthrow an oppressive and exploitative system; that armed struggle is bringing an end to feudal relations in the countryside and empowering the rural folk through a form of shadow government; and who believe the ultimate way to a just and lasting peace is for the revolutionary forces and people to prevail over the defenders of the unjust status quo, peace talks remain a desirable and viable way for the two parties to negotiate an interim or a final political settlement, depending on the prevailing conditions.

People ask, “Are they negotiating in earnest? Do they really want to arrive at a political settlement?” The hardliners argue that by the very nature of the armed conflict, and especially the ideologies underlying each side, the peace talks are mere shadow play, utilized by either side for their own political ends, and thereby are doomed to fail.

Experienced peace advocates, on the other hand, have learned that “sincerity” is not at issue or shouldn’t be. Given favorable conditions and circumstances, whatever the motivations of the leadership of the parties at any time, when they muster the political will to sit down and talk peace, this is a most welcome development deserving of everyone’s support.

The important thing is that the framework — the agenda and modalities or “terms of reference” — allows and compels the two parties to forge a series of agreements that benefit the people in the short run and pave the way for a final peace agreement that addresses the roots of the armed conflict, leading to a just and lasting peace in the long run. In the current GPH-NDFP peace negotiations, the 1992 Joint Hague Declaration effectively set this foundation for the peace talks. It has, within three years of the start of formal talks in 1995, resulted in the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law that would mitigate the impact of armed conflict on the people even as the more difficult socio-economic and political reforms that address the deeper roots of conflict are being negotiated. Unfortunately, little has been achieved on the substantive agenda since then.

The sad news is that in various degrees, successive GPH regimes, with plenty of encouragement and instigation from the US, took a hardline stance and attempted to circumvent, if not outrightly undermine, the framework agreement.

The government could not and would not pursue peace talks unless the NDFP agreed to: 1) accept the Philippine constitution and legal processes as framework for the talks; 2) abandon the armed struggle and enter into an immediate and indefinite ceasefire for the duration of the talks; and 3) conclude a “final peace agreement” sans any implementation of socio-economic and political-constitutional reforms that would demonstrate to the people and the revolutionary movement that the peace pacts were being upheld.

In short, the government was insisting on “surrender talks.”

In the case of the outgoing Aquino regime, the militarists in the AFP and the OPAPP had convinced Mr. Aquino that the CPP-NPA and the rest of the NDFP are a spent force and that a fine-tuned counterinsurgency program cloaked with the mantra of “Daang Matuwid” could easily render them “politically irrelevant.”

The Aquino peace panel, at the first and only formal talks held in Oslo in February 2011 went to the extent of declaring the Hague Joint Declaration a “document of perpetual division.” Eventually, it said the GPH no longer wanted to talk about the social causes of the armed conflict, and insisted on starting from scratch, casting aside all previous agreements.

The good news is that under the incoming Duterte presidency, the designated GPH peace panel inked a joint statement in exploratory talks with the NDFP held June 14-15 that resumes formal peace talks this July in Oslo, Norway in accordance with previously signed agreements.

The agreed upon agenda for the first round of formal talks with the Duterte government’s peace panel is substantial including the accelerated process for negotiations; reconstitution of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees; amnesty proclamation for the release of all detained political prisoners, subject to concurrence by Congress; and mode of interim ceasefire.

What could not be agreed upon in more than five years of the Aquino presidency were settled in a matter of two days! Nothing short of amazing.

The time for animosity, cynicism, rigidity, conventional and ultraconservative thinking is now past. As the man says, “Change is coming.” #

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two. Streetwise is her regular column at BusinessWorld.