Sunday, April 17, 2011

STATUS OF GPH PEACE TALKS WITH THE NDFP AND THE MILF

BY ROMMEL C. BANLAOI




(Speech delivered at the 4th Peace &  Unity International Forum and 2011 Albani Peace Prize Awards held at the Manila Hotel, 16 April 2011)

Let me first convey my deepest gratitude to the Unity for Revival Foundation headed by Chairman Shariff Ibrahim Albani and the Damayan Advocacy Alliance headed by Jonathan “Jake” Navea for the honor to speak at the 4th Peace and Unity International Forum and the First Albani Peace Prize Awards

I am also grateful to the organizers for conferring me the 2011 Albani Peace Prize Award for Peace & Humanitarian Service.  This kind of recognition immensely inspires academics like me to sustain our scholarly work on peace studies and advocacies. 

In my case, I consider peace studies as an alternative framework to analyze the complex issues of political violence and terrorism in the Philippines. As the motto of our institute strongly asserts, we counter political violence and terrorism through peace research.

Setting those amenities aside, I am tasked today to primarily discuss the status of peace talks of the Government of the Philippines (GPH) with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).   

Let me begin my talk by stressing that the current government is on the right track of pursuing negotiated political settlement of all armed conflicts in the Philippines, particularly with the NDFP and the MILF.  This indicates that the current dispensation is highly informed of the necessity to seriously pursue the track of peace negotiations with the NDFP and the MILF while at the same time upholding the complementary track of sincerely addressing the roots of armed conflicts in the Philippines.

There is no doubt that that pursuing these two tracks is much easier said than done, especially when we pay attention to specific issues where differences of all parties are inevitably found. 

But the main principle behind any negotiation is to really look for a common ground.  The process towards the finding of a common ground is already a gargantuan challenge that all parties have to face squarely and candidly. 

Despite all these difficulties and challenges, what is important is that pursuing the peace process and addressing the roots of armed conflicts have been accorded high priority in the national security agenda of the present government.   This is better than waging an all out war that breeds more hatred, despair and violence; a war that creates internally displaced persons, destroys private properties and critical infrastructures, and opens the gates for many forms of human rights violations and abuses.

On the GPH peace talks with the NDFP, both parties made a landmark effort on 14-18 January 2011 when they held preliminary negotiations in Oslo, Norway.  With the facilitation of the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG), the GPH-NDFP mutually agreed to prepare for the resumption of the formal peace talk after being discontinued in 2004.

The GPH-NDFP formally resumed their formal peace negotiations on 15-21 February 2011 where both parties agreed to an 18-month timeframe for completing their draft comprehensive agreement on the following agenda:  socio-economic reforms, political-constitutional reforms, and end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

For the Philippine Government, the resumption of the GPH-NDFP Peace Talks is an essential component of its national peace and development agenda.   GPH has expressed its strong determination to finally reach a negotiated political settlement with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF), or CNN (to use the military acronym) so that resources of the government will be used for nation-building and national reconciliation rather than counterinsurgency operations that further divide our nation.  President Benigno Aquino III has even strongly pursued a three-year time frame for the conclusion of an agreement so that the remaining three years of his office will be devoted not anymore for talks but for the implementation of the agreement.

For the NDFP, the resumption of the peace talk is also necessary to finally address the long neglected roots of armed conflicts in the Philippines.  However, the NDFP takes a long-term view of the peace talks compared with a three-year time frame of the government.   While the NDFP cautiously sees some short-term prospects for the resumption of peace talks with the government, it also sees some seemingly inevitable pitfalls in the long run that can unnecessarily obstruct the success of the implementation of any peace agreement.  For the NDFP, the main objective of the peace talks is to find just and lasting solution the country’s internal armed conflict, which particularly means more than the cessation of hostilities between the two parties. 

While the position of NDFP converges with the second track of the government’s peace and development paradigm, addressing the roots of armed conflicts with the local communist movement requires concomitant political, economic, social and constitutional reforms that the present government and beyond should be willing to champion.  But these reform issues are subject to the vagaries of domestic politics in the Philippines where there are more players, more stakeholders and more interests to consider.  Addressing all these issues are undoubtedly already beyond the control of the two negotiating parties.

In the Oslo meeting last February 2011, the GPH and the NDFP agreed to hold three bilateral meetings of the Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) on Social and Economic Reforms (SER) scheduled in June and August 2011.  These meetings aim to discuss a wide array of sensitive but very important issues such as “agrarian reform and rural development” for the NDFP and “asset reform” for the GPH, and “national industrialization” for the NDFP and “industrial policy” for the GPH.” These meetings are essential to come up with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER), which for the NDFP is crucial to strategically address the roots of armed conflicts in the Philippines.   They also agreed to hold initial session of the Working Groups on Political and Constitutional Reforms (PCR) this month and every two months thereafter with the ardent hope to convene a meeting of RWCs on PCR in October 2011.  Meetings of RWCs on PCR are essential to come-up with the Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms (CAPCR), which both parties deem vital to address the roots of armed violence in the country.

We can wait and see where all these processes will lead us to.  But we can also influence the outcome of the GPH-NDFP peace talks if we will participate in the many consultations and dialogues being organized by both parties.

On the GPH peace talks with the MILF, the first formal negotiation was held on 9-10 February 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which serves as the facilitator. 

For the MILF, the meeting was its 20th formal exploratory talks with the GPH but the first formal meeting of the GPH under the Aquino administration.   In this meeting, both parties  tackled three fundamental issues:  1) Review and amendment of the Terms of Reference of the International Monitoring Team (IMT); 2) Review and amendment of the Implementing Guidelines of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG); and 3) Draft of the Comprehensive Compact submitted by the MILF.    

On the IMT, both parties agreed to renew their mandate for another year.  On the AHJAG, both parties reaffirmed their commitments to continue their joint efforts in “coordinating the isolation and interdiction” of criminal or lawless elements of the MILF.   On the Draft Comprehensive Compact, the GPH requested more time to review and study the draft and to come-out with a government proposal. 

For the government, entering into another talk with the MILF is part of healing the wounds created by the controversies surrounding the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).  Talks with the MILF also demonstrates the desire of the government promote peace in Mindanao so that its long overdue development will follow.    The conflict affected areas of Mindanao are very rich in natural and strategic resources that can be harnessed for the economic development not only of the whole island but also of the entire archipelago.  

The GPH and the MILF agreed to hold another meeting on 29-30 March 2011. But it was postponed to 27-28 April 2011. 

In my opinion, one major issue that caused the postponement of the meeting was the status of Commander Umbra Kato who has been reported to have formed his own armed group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF).  The BIFF aims to continue the armed struggle of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination.  

For me, the status of Commander Kato and his BIFF will pose a major challenge to the success of the GPH-MILF peace talks.   Even if an agreement is signed between the GPH and the MILF, it will not guarantee the ending of armed conflicts in Mindanao because there is still another significant armed group that can disturb the peace. 

The group of Commander Kato, which is believed to have more than 1,000 armed followers, has become a residual armed group - a party to the conflict but not a party to the peace agreement.  The reported connection of Commander Kato with some commanders of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Jemaah Islamiyaah (JI), lawless elements of the MILF, rouge factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and New People’s Army (NPA) complicates the already complex situation in Mindanao.

We all hope for peace!  But there are rough roads to peace.  In GPH talks with the NDFP and the MILF, the road to peace is disturbed by many related issues that also contribute to the perpetuation of internal armed conflicts in the country.

One issue is the needed closure to related peace talks with communist break away groups emanating from Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa–Pilipinas (RPM-P)/ Revolutionary Proletarian Army (RPA)/Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) and the Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa–Mindanao (RPM-M).    Unless we put a closure on these issues, the road to peace on the communist front will not be easy.

Another concomitant issue is the complete implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement with the GPH and the MNLF and the 1986 Peace Agreement with the GPH and Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA).   If these agreements are not implemented completely, it will pose a challenge to the credibility of the government to implement another agreement with another armed group on the Moro front.  In fact, there are factions of the MNLF that aims to pursue armed struggle because of their dissatisfaction with the implementation of the 1996 Agreement.  As long as there are dissatisfied armed groups willing to pursue armed struggle, ending internal armed conflicts will be difficult.

A related issue that can obstruct the GPH talks with the NDFP and the MILF is the concern of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) who are also asserting their rightful role in the peace process.  Many IPs live in the conflict affected areas of the Philippines.  They are always caught in the crossfire and their ancestral domains are, more often than not, the battlegrounds of internal armed conflicts in the country, whether in the communist or Moro fronts.  IPs have tremendous stakes in the outcome of the peace process.  Thus, putting IP issues and concerns in the agenda of the peace process is essential for the success of GPH talks with the NDFP and the MILF.  Otherwise, it will not prevent IPs to arm themselves to advance their rights to self-determination. In fact, there are already some Indigenous Peoples Armed Groups (IPAGs) all over the country and the success of the peace process will prevent them to further proliferation.

Also an important issue is the existence of private armed groups (PAGs) all over the country.  According to official government estimate, there are 132 PAGS in the Philippines.  For me, that is a very conservative estimate considering that many politicians associated with political dynasties in the country have their own private armies.  Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that PAGs also contribute to internal armed conflicts.  Some people join armed rebel groups because of the oppression or maltreatment they experienced from PAGs.  The peace process must therefore address the eventual dismantlement of PAGs. Though the previous government has formed a commission for this purpose,   its power was only recommendatory nature.  The job to really dismantle PAGs belongs to our law enforcement authorities.

The final issue that has bearing on the peace process is the role of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).   The AFP, which is mandated by the Constitution to protect the people and the state, already launched the Oplan Bayanihan highlighting non-military approaches to address internal armed conflicts in the Philippines.  In the Oplan Bayanihan, military forces are instructed to respect human rights and implement international humanitarian law in the conduct of counter-insurgency operations.  It recognizes that ending armed conflicts in the country requires the participation of the whole nation and not only the military.  This is a paradigm shift in the military thinking of insurgency problems.   But having fought the insurgency for more than four decades, killing the old habits of counter-insurgency operations will also take time. In the peace process therefore, preparing the AFP for post-conflict missions must also be addressed.    Military budget for traditional counter-insurgency operations must eventually be cut to demonstrate that the AFP is truly expecting peace in the land.  Instead, there must be increased military budget for post-conflict missions such as peacekeeping, peace-building, disaster management and essential military operations other than war.

 All these issues are in fact clarion call for us to be more unrelenting in our advocacy for peace.   As what Robert Fulghum says, “Peace is not something you wish for, it's something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.

With this brief presentation, I truly hope that I have added value to our discussions today.

Thank you very much and Mabuhay!  Peace be with you all!

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