Can Marcos Pull Off Peace Talks With The Communists?
Renewed attempt in the Philippines to realize elusive peace and order
By: Viswa Nathan
When the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria “Joma” Sison, died in the Netherlands last December, the Manila Times headlined: “Joma’s death opens a window for peace.” Many others, including former president Rodrigo Duterte, who had tried but failed to cut a peace deal, joined in expressing similar sentiments. An even more elated Department of Defense, which considered Sison the greatest stumbling block to peace, called on the communist rebels to surrender.
The response was swift: “Even as we mourn, we vow to continue to give all our strength and determination to carry the revolution forward.” Nonetheless, on November 28, representatives of the Marcos administration, the CPP and the peace talks facilitator Norway announced they would make a new bid for the first time in six years to end 50 years of civil strife.
Dealing with splinter groups – the CPP and other dissidents like Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – that have remained a challenge over the past several decades was not the priority of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who was less than six months in office when Sison died. Now, though, the situation is different. Marcos has mobilized international support for protecting the country’s territorial rights, secured trade deals like duty-free access to the European Union market for a very large number of export products, won the sympathetic ear of foreign investors, and is keeping political opponents tactfully in check. The time is ripe to turn to securing peace and order, which is essential to the country’s economic development and his administration’s success.
It is a calculated move. But will he succeed where every president since his father, Ferdinand E. Marcos, failed?
Sison founded the CPP in 1968 after observing the elder Marcos in office for four years in a profound statement of dissatisfaction. Nine years later, in 1977, Marcos, now a martial law dictator, announced at a press conference the arrest of Sison and his wife but also said that the communist party, though temporarily crippled, would revive “as such movements usually do.”
Why so? This is the question Marcos Jr needs to consider as he is now setting out to seek peace.
The answer hides in how the government and administrators have evolved. In an oligarchic society where the rich and influential held sway with the support of the former colonial master, those who sought political and socio-economic reform for the benefit of the downtrodden vast majority were seen as pariahs, the enemy of the state.
This is in stark contrast with the reality across the land. NPA activists maintained amicable relationships with people in the communities where they operated. Violence erupted only when the army arrived to haunt them. The people viewed them as citizens with a vision for achieving socioeconomic justice; their objective was not to terrorize the people but to fight for agrarian reform and eliminate inequalities. To achieve these goals, they believed the government which the Filipino oligarchs controlled needed to be replaced with a people’s government that was free from the influence of the United States.
For that, they attracted even ordained Christian priests, from Luis Jalandoni to Leoncio “Jun” Evasco Jr., who thought that with Sison as the leader, they could realize what the Church only preached.
The Muslim rebellion in the southern parts of the country is no different, a minority group seeking fair treatment in a nation of Catholic majority faith. Over three decades ago, when the then retiring president Corazon Aquino anointed her defense secretary Fidel V. Ramos to run for president in the coming election, the Catholic archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, was reported to have admonished her for nominating a man of protestant faith for the head of state. I then asked a close associate of Aquino, in this situation what is the chance for a citizen of the Muslim faith to rise to leadership. “None at all,” was the answer, with an explanation after a brief hesitation: “In this case, we are not all equal, and separating the church from the State is a complex emotional issue, unlikely to happen, if at all, for a very long time.”
Dealing with these realities and inculcating a sense of impartiality in the minds of his peace negotiators are the first hurdles the younger Marcos faces. Some are skeptical whether he can cross over these hurdles. If the government is sincere in wanting peace, it should, thinks France Castro, a member of the House of Representatives, offer amnesty to rebels without any condition and remove the tag “communist terrorist groups.”
There are others who suspect that amnesty, unless strictly monitored, could become a source of corruption by the military as it could tag someone as a rebel even if that person is not, and then grant amnesty for a price. Within the administration, there are influential hawks who believe the ongoing military action in the countryside and in jungles against rebels should continue until a peace pact is sealed and carried out. There are also others who wouldn’t like to see this “weak leader” succeeding where his stronger predecessor has failed.
What makes this new initiative more promising than all previous ones is that it is not a continuation of the previous failed negotiations. All parties have agreed to start anew and “resolve the roots of the armed conflict” which, in fact, is also Marcos’s declared economic agenda for uplifting the country to upper-middle-income status with gross national income per capita reaching US$4,256.
In May 2022, as he was leading the polls with an incredible margin, Marcos appealed to the public: Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions. Step by step, he seems to be measuring up and moving his country to a place among nations that respect the rule of law.
Viswa Nathan is Asia Sentinel’s Philippines correspondent