"The idea of local peace talks sounds good--in theory."
This is the second part of my earlier column on the communist insurgency that I discussed last August 14 before the Philippine Air Force Civil-Military Operations Group (PAF-CMOG).
The Duterte administration restarted peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF in 2016. To show good faith and sincerity, the government released some detained CPP-NPA leaders who were said to be peace consultants. The peace talks held mainly in Europe brokered by the Norwegian government managed to hold a few meetings but was not able to agree on the substantive aspects covering economic and social reforms, political and electoral reforms, and cessation of hostilities.
The biggest obstacle was that the two sides could not agree on a bilateral ceasefire for the duration of the peace talks. The NPA launched numerous attacks on government forces even while the peace talks were ongoing. As things now stand, the government has indicated that it would seek to crush the communist rebellion through both military offensives and civic action.
With the collapse of the formal peace talks with the NDF, the government has begun to implement localized peace talks aimed at facilitating the surrender of communist rebels and giving them cash incentives when they lay down their arms to rejoin the mainstream of society.
The idea of local peace talks sounds good in theory: Talk to the local NPA leaders, convince them that armed struggle is futile because the government is addressing their grievances, such as agrarian reform, and even offer them cash for arms, housing, and livelihood assistance. But will the rebels bite this tactic, and stream to military camps to surrender?
That’s highly unlikely. The military may be able to convince some of the rebels to go down from the hills and return to a normal life in the social mainstream, but probably not in sufficient numbers to dismantle the rebel apparatus in the countryside. We’re talking here of armed struggle that’s been going on for half a century, or spanning two generations, and the aging communist leaders and their second liners steeped in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism aren’t likely to give up so easily.
The NDF does not want localized peace talks as they see this is a form of divide-and-conquer. But reaching out to local rebel leaders and convincing them to stop the fighting may work in some areas, and should be pursued along with socio-economic initiatives. The creation of a separate civil-military operations unit by the Air Force will no doubt help in the overall effort to achieve peace in the country.
While the NPA’s strength has dwindled, the NPA is still capable of attacking government forces in hit-and-run fashion particularly in far-flung areas. At the same time, the NPA is engaged in what it calls revolutionary taxation to raise funds for its operations. That is why we often read reports of incidents of NPA attacks on mining firms, transportation companies and other commercial enterprises in the provinces that apparently refuse to pay up.
The buzzword these days is to take a whole-of-nation approach to solving the insurgency problem. This simply means taking a comprehensive approach to ending the fighting through a combination of military offensives and socio-economic development initiatives to reduce poverty incidence and improve the standard of living of those in the rural areas.
If the Duterte administration has closed the door to the resumption of peace talks with the communists, then we can expect the military, including the Air Force, to take an active role in counter-insurgency operations. The modernization of the AFP includes the acquisition of more air assets, such as fighter jets and attack helicopters to assist ground forces in search and destroy operations against the NPA.
Beyond the military component, the Air Force should be able to assist the civilian government in winning hearts and minds through prompt rescue, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in emergency and disaster situations, and close coordination with government agencies at the national and local levels to assist in social development and anti-poverty initiatives. The pro-active stance in civil-military operations will help the national government in combating the communist insurgency and rebels to give up their arms and return to the mainstream of society.
In one of my recent columns, I described the continuing armed hostilities between government forces and communist rebels as a war without end unless the two sides agree to a mutually acceptable political settlement. The draft presented by the NDF on social and economic reforms has not been formally taken up but it includes such issues as genuine agrarian reform and nationalist industrialization. Those are two big issues that require a process of give and take or agreeing to concessions to the other side. With the prospect of more violence and bloodshed in the months and years ahead, somehow the peace process should be resumed, with backchannel efforts aimed at getting the two sides to face each other across the negotiating table rather than in the battlefield.