ARE President Rodrigo Duterte’s peace plans in tatters, as one international TV news network headlined it?
While the title certainly grabs readers, it seems way off the real score.
Sure, both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the rebel New People’s Army, the armed segment of the Communist Party of the Philippines, are gearing up for renewed fighting, even “all-out war,” according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
But for seasoned watchers of the CPP-NPA and their National Democratic Front (NDF) activist wing, such tough talk is nothing to write home about. Guns-a-blazing rhetoric gets the frontlines all fired up, but not necessarily firing.
In fact, as fellow columnist Rigoberto Tiglao revealed yesterday, the NPA organ Ang Bayan has been claiming that the rebels mounted “more than 18” attacks against the government while peace talks were going on, plus an arms-grabbing raid at a posh Batangas resort’s security unit. In his own exhortation to insurgents, NPA spokesman “Ka Oris” even said there were nearly 30 assaults.
Plainly, fighting doesn’t mean peace isn’t moving.
Two steps forward, one step back
So what exactly is happening to the Duterte peace plans?
For starters, there are two of them, red and green. The ceasefire and formal talks with the Reds are off, but those with Muslim insurgents — a far greater threat — are still on.
First the Reds: The CPP-NPA-NDF ended its unilateral ceasefire last Saturday, February 10. That and several attacks on the military, including the abduction of two unarmed soldiers on furlough, prompted President Duterte to cancel his ceasefire and peace talks with the communists.
Yet countless voices in Congress and civil society are calling for continued talks. The President has said peace with the communists is still possible. The CPP itself wants to “talk and fight.”
Doesn’t sound like tatters, does it?
Neither does recent news about the peace process in Muslim Mindanao. Last week President Duterte named members of the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), working to implement the 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The new BTC includes 11 MILF nominees, including the chairman; and 10 government nominees, including three from the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a final peace accord in 1996.
This makes the commission more inclusive, and addresses the urging from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the MNLF and MILF to work together.
Moreover, the government will begin talks with the MNLF on fully implementing the 1996 accord, which the OIC was also pushing.
So, it looks like President Duterte’s peace plans took two steps forward — peace efforts with the CPP-NPA-NDF, and the MILF and MNLF — and one step back with the communists, at least for now.
One more point about the greens: The MILF poses a far greater security threat than the communists, with an estimated 11,000 Muslim fighters in Central and Western Mindanao, with substantial resources from Muslim entities abroad.
That’s more than double the NPA’s estimated 5,000 insurgents scattered across the vast archipelago, with far less backing from abroad, and none of the geopolitical clout the OIC brandishes.
Once peace is forged with the MILF, then the communists must come around, unless they want to face the military’s full force, with no Muslim insurgency occupying it.
Red light for the CPP-NPA-NDF talks
So, will the Reds eventually return to Rome or Oslo? Unless one thinks the CPP-NPA-NDF can foment a nationwide rebellion backed by most Filipinos, their choices are negotiation or eradication. And the reasons put forward for their decision to end the ceasefire, also point to renewed peace talks eventually.
One reason cited by several articles, including former leftist Tiglao’s seminal coverage, is the lack or absence of top-level control over NPA fighters. Thus, even if CPP chiefs in Holland agree to stop shooting, their cadres don’t follow.
Money could be one big reason. Assuming each insurgent needs P300 a day to live, plus extra for operations, the cash-burn for 5,000 armed NPA regulars is about P50 million a month, or P600 million a year.
Most of that mammoth sum comes from extorting “revolutionary taxes,” but the NPA may collect less if it can’t stage attacks due to the ceasefire.
Hence, with or without the chiefs’ nod from the Netherlands, NPA cadres had to start shooting again, just to get their cut of local produce and profits
This can’t go on forever, of course, especially once peace is forged with the MILF. But by then, the NPA might have a kitty to last through the talks.
Another reasoning sees the rebels resuming hostilities to seize more areas and arms, and boost their position for the most significant haggling over social reforms and the disposition of NPA fighters and weapons.
This reasoning, too, expects the CPP-NPA-NDF to eventually forge peace.
A third reason for rebel hostilities appears far-fetched: to help Duterte stay in power.
Huh? The speculation goes this way: Under the present regime, the CPP-NPA-NDF have a unique and probably unrepeatable opportunity to get the best deal they can.
President Duterte shares many leftist advocacies, and even calls himself a socialist. Also unprecedented, he made three NDF nominees Cabinet members. And he freed 23 captured rebel leaders for negotiations, including the NPA’s former chief and his wife.
But the regime faces animosity and maybe plots from drug syndicates, corrupt police and politicians, the Aquino camp, and the US. Catholic bishops are also unhappy.
By resuming hostilities, the CPP-NPA-NDF is spurring security forces, the political establishment, and countless Filipinos to unite behind the Commander in Chief. At the same time, the rebels resume extortion, and seek battle gains to help them at the table.
Eventually, talks resume with a full NPA kitty, maybe more CPP bargaining power, and a secure President Duterte, who would then have the staying power to deliver on the best deal the communists can ever get.
For a rebellion that liquidated hundreds of cadres in its 1980s purges, such an outcome would be worth shedding more of its blood.