By: Michael Hart

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to dissolve the government-appointed peace panel charged with negotiating an end to the five-decade insurgency waged by communist rebels comes after years of fruitless political wrangling and intermittent negotiations against a backdrop of escalating violence.

In an attempt to find a new approach, the government has proposed new localized talks with the New People’s Army as an alternative pathway, but to what extent does this shift in focus to the provincial level represent a viable strategy to resolve the conflict? While it may encourage more fighters to surrender and reduce violence in some regions, ending Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency without a national-level peace deal will be a monumental task.

Peace process collapses under Duterte

Duterte’s ascent to power initially brought fresh hope of a resolution after he voiced his desire on the campaign trail to pursue a negotiated settlement with the NDFP. Things started positively, with three rounds of dialogue taking place in Oslo and Rome after both sides initiated ceasefires in August 2016.

Yet talks collapsed in early-2017 after a disagreement over a prisoner amnesty coincided with renewed rebel attacks. Fighting resumed in rural areas across the country and later that year Duterte signed an order ending talks and sought to label the NPA-CPP-NDFP a ‘terrorist organization’ through the courts.

Back-channel discussions were held between April and June last year with a view to resuming formal talks. These efforts failed before a fresh ceasefire could be implemented, triggering a heated war-of-words between Duterte and CPP leader Jose Maria Sison, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands.

Duterte has accused the CPP of orchestrating a plot to oust him and described insurgents as ‘robots’ fighting for the ‘bankrupt mind’ of their 80-year-old figurehead, while Sison has portrayed Duterte as a ‘crazy guy in power’ known for using violent tactics. In recent months the NPA has ramped up its campaign of gun attacks and ambushes using IEDs against government security forces in its eastern Mindanao strongholds, while maintaining de-facto control of rural populations by illegally collecting taxes and intimidating its opponents through a series of raids, arson attacks, and extra-judicial killings.  

The sudden disbanding of the government negotiating panel appears the final nail in the coffin for the peace process under Duterte. Yet multiple local peace panels, with representation from lower-ranking rebel commanders, provincial government units and regional military leaders could offer new a route forward.

What caused national-level talks to collapse? And how likely is the local approach to succeed?

The failure to revive the national-level peace process last year centered on disagreement over whether talks should be held in the Philippines or a neutral venue. The government has long called for NDFP negotiators and CPP leader Sison to return home for talks, while Sison and his allies reject this, claiming it would be a front for their arrest.

The NDFP also rejected the government’s long list of preconditions for talks to resume, which included an end to attacks and extortion, the full encampment of rebel fighters and an assurance that the CPP would not seek to join a future coalition government.

While these triggers for the collapse apply to the Duterte-era, several more deeply-rooted factors help explain the repeat failure of national-level talks under Duterte and five former presidents before him.

The rebels’ Marxist-Leninist ideology has remained remarkably consistent since the start of the communist movement in the 1960s. The grouping aims to overthrow the government in Manila, which it views as imperialist and semi-colonial, and replace it with a socialist system led by the rural poor by waging a protracted armed insurgency. A strict adherence to this overarching aim of altering the Philippines’ political system has served as a barrier to any meaningful progress arising from talks.

The NPA’s nationwide presence and wide geographical dispersion have also hampered peace efforts at the national level. With fighters active in almost all of the Philippines’ 81 provinces, it has proven hard for Sison and NDFP negotiators to restrain the activities of field units while talks are in progress. When ceasefires have been declared from above, fighting has often erupted on the ground in local settings where troop movements and retaliatory attacks drive cycles of violence. Spates of NPA attacks have scuppered peace efforts several times in recent years, prompting Duterte to suspend or call off talks.

A long-standing lack of trust between both sides also plays a role. After five decades of conflict, deeply-set opposing positions have developed whereby each party views the other as its sworn enemy on the battlefield. A history of broken ceasefires and failed talks under successive governments led by Ramos, Aquino, Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino II and now Duterte have added to suspicion and entrenched historical divisions. Inflamed recent rhetoric from Duterte and Sison has further fanned the flames of violence.

Localized approach

With national-level talks scrapped after a history of repeated failure, could a localized approach work?

The government plans to build upon talks which have already taken place in some localities by forming a new network of inclusive local peace panels under a “whole-of-nation” approach, aimed at forging a sustainable peace. Duterte’s senior peace process advisor, Carlito Galvez, revealed on 20 March the idea was based on peace bodies in Colombia which included a wide variety of stakeholders on all sides.

A key part of the plan relies on persuading rebels to surrender through the Enhanced-Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP), which provides financial support and livelihood assistance. Duterte has also promised to assist former rebels in securing housing, training and eventually full employment.

After decades of failed talks. A localized approach may prove beneficial as it would directly engage those responsible for commanding rebel forces on the ground. From exile in the Netherlands, Sison and other senior members of the CPP-NDFP hierarchy have little control over armed offensives, serving more as symbolic figureheads representing the founding ideology of the Maoist movement in the Philippines. Since the beginnings of its uprising in the late-1960s, the NPA has become increasingly decentralized, with local insurgent leaders dictating strategy and patterns of violence in the provinces.  

Negotiating with those who hold sway on the ground may help to quell violence while encouraging more rebels to surrender and rejoin mainstream society with government help. Duterte will hope that this dual approach, coupled with a bolstered army crackdown under martial law in the NPA’s heartlands, would blunt the insurgency. Yet in the face of previous offensives, the movement has forged a reputation for resilience and proven hard to contain. With the NPA operating out of dense forests and mountainous terrain in the rural hinterlands of provinces across the country, inflicting a decisive military defeat is unrealistic. Securing peace in the countryside nationwide through local talks is an equally difficult task.

Despite the potential short-term benefits of the shift to a localized approach, a settlement to end the conflict in its entirety would still require a deal with the hierarchy and senior leaders. To reach an agreement with a lasting impact, it will at some point become essential to once again engage the political bodies which underpin the communist movement; not only the foot soldiers of the NPA.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com) has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.