For the past several decades, the Philippines have experienced an ongoing insurgency. The communist insurgency in the Philippines is one of the longest running insurgencies in the Asia-Pacific Region. This conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives since its beginning. The communist party started its armed struggle in the late 1960s, with the aim to overthrow the government through guerrilla warfare. The Communist Rebel Organisation, the National Democratic Front (NDF), is believed to currently have around 4000 fighters, significantly less than its peak of 26,000 in the 1980s. These fighters have engaged in killings, bombings and hostage taking across the country and have also been known for collecting “revolutionary taxes” from businesses in the areas that are under its control. This insurgency has seen some international influence, with the Communist Party and the National Democratic Front both being designated as foreign terrorist organisations by the United States (USA) in 2002. This action further cemented the rebels’ opposition to the USA, in particular their military presence in the country.
Since the 1980s, there have been several attempts by successive governments to create a peace deal, but the talks have remained unsuccessful. This week marks the start of the latest round of peace talks between the current Filipino government and the NDF in Rome. Since his inauguration, President Rodrigo Duterte has made ending this rebellion one of his top priorities and has stated that he is willing to “walk the extra mile” for peace. Duterte launched this latest peace process shortly after he took office in June last year, installing three communists in his cabinet and engaging in talks with the Communist party. He is aiming for a final deal within the next twelve months but the communist rebels have expressed their hesitation with this deadline, saying that they believe that a peace deal was unlikely achievable before 2019. Fidel Agcaoili, leader of the rebels, stated that “the NDF goes into the third round of formal talks in Rome determined as always to persevere with the peace talks but increasingly troubled by the other party’s sincerity.” Familiar grievances and barriers have returned to haunt this latest round of peace talks. In order for these talks to be successful, three issues need to be addressed.
The first barrier to these peace talks is the issue surrounding the ceasefires, in particular the breaking of previous ceasefires by both sides. There have been several attempts to create a lasting ceasefire, but these have often been marred by the killings of both soldiers and rebels. An attack against four soldiers, who were killed in a landmine attack carried out by the NDF, resulted in Duterte temporarily lifting the government ceasefire ending in an NPF rebel being killed. This incident encompasses the issues surrounding the ceasefire. These deals have often been fragile. It is these incidents, combined with Duterte’s war on drugs that have made the rebels hesitant to give up their arms. Some rebels have accused Duterte of using his war on drugs to attack them. They believe that Duterte is using this as a cover so that they cannot be accused of breaking the ceasefire. However, the core aim of these peace talks is to establish a bilateral ceasefire. Previous ceasefires have been unilateral actions on the behalf of each party. A bilateral ceasefire will be an agreement between both parties and may prove to be more stable and lasting than previous ones. Without this ceasefire, the likelihood of establishing peace in the country is very low. The ceasefire is an action which ultimately stops outright fighting between the parties, thus ensuring that the death toll does not increase. Therefore, this is an important issue in these peace discussions and something which both parties should strive to accomplish.
The second major barrier to peace revolves around rebels who have been detained by the government. In order to gain the rebel’s trust, the government conducted a series of confidence building measures which included releasing high ranking rebels from prison. This action was reciprocated by the rebels, who have released police officers that they were holding. However, the NDF has called for the release of a further 400 rebels that are currently being held. The NDF has demanded that these individuals are granted amnesty and plan to negotiate their release in these peace talks. This is an issue that has proven to be a considerable obstacle in the past. The rebels have stated that the release of these individuals is the only way that they will grant concessions on other issues but unlike previous administrations, Duterte released some high ranking rebels in order to signal his desires to negotiate a peace deal. The continuing prevalence of this issue shows how important it is for both parties to find a solution. By releasing prisoners, both sides are signalling their intentions to seriously consider peace negotiations. This is an important step in the peace process and it is essential that both parties allow discussion on this issue.
Another issue in this round of peace talks concerns the discussion of economic and social reforms proposed by the NDF. While the full details of these reforms have not been made available yet, they are a key issue for the rebels. They will align with the ideology of the NDF and discussions about them are meant to occur at these peace talks. It is unclear whether or not these reforms will occur but it is important that both sides are willing to participate in a discussion about them without alienating each other. Apart from the ceasefire, these reforms are also an important issue on the agenda. If the government grants them, it will further signal their intentions for peace with the NDF and the Communist Party.
Recent incidents have affected the trust that both parties have in each other, but the willingness for both to attend and participate in these discussions shows that they both want peace. Special envoy Elisabeth Slattum commented on this, stating that “although there are still unresolved issues, with regards to commitments to releases of political prisoners, commitments on a bilateral cease-fire which will both be subjects of discussion during this round of talks, we commend the parties for doing exactly that, for working together.” It is important that both parties participate with an open mind. The NDF and government have both signalled their intentions for peace but it is important that the barriers which have impacted the peace process in the past are addressed. If this peace process is successful, it will end one of the longest running insurgencies in the Asia-Pacific Region. This is an insurgency that has already claimed more than 30,000 lives and as such, it is important that a significant effort is made to prevent further civilian casualties.
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