Peace is key to growth, poverty alleviation

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For years, the Philippine government has pursued peace talks with both the communist and Muslim rebels in the hope of finally ending these decades-long insurgencies and giving the economy the breathing room it needs to grow.

Peace panels from the time of President Ramos have sat down with negotiators of the National Democratic Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but none have succeeded in forging a lasting agreement that would put an end to the two separate rebellions.

President Aquino, who has vowed to forge a peace agreement with both rebel groups as his administration’s lasting legacy, has been able to prevent major clashes between the Armed Forces and the rebel groups by pursuing peace talks with the NDF and the MILF, enabling the Philippine economy to move forward and attain rapid growth rates in his three years in office.

It must be recalled that the Philippine economy also grew by leaps and bounds during the term of President Ramos, who made it among his first official acts to grant amnesty to all rebels and to sit down with rebel groups.

Just two months into Ramos’ term, the Philippine government and the NDF signed the Hague Joint Declaration that set the framework of the peace talks between the government and the communist rebels. It laid the foundation for the peace talks which primarily aim “to resolve the armed conflict” and “to attain just and lasting peace.”

The Hague Declaration also laid out the agenda of the formal peace negotiations, which include human rights and international humanitarian law, socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

The talks seemed to be gaining ground during the first three years of the Aquino administration, but now appears to have reached a tragic end following the ambush of Gingoog City Mayor Ruthie Guingona, the mother of Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, by NPA rebels in April.

Obviously angered by the ambush of the mother of Aquino’s closest allies, Palace spokesmen virtually shut the door to the peace negotiation by branding NPA rebels as bandits, adding that as far as they were concerned there was no ongoing peace process.

Addressing the communist rebels, he added: “You want to challenge us? Go ahead, make our day.”

The NPA apologized for the incident after a few days, but the government would have none of it, with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles saying that “the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front (CPP/NPA/ NDF) has designed the peace process to be unending while taking advantage of the Philippine government.”

Deles said “we have realized that the tortuous and protracted pace of the peace talks has been designed by the CPP/NPA/NDF precisely to make the process protracted, and in fact, unending, while, without conceding anything to government, it harvests for itself as many concessions as it can in terms of virtual international recognition and the release of their detained comrades.”

Deles had said that it was the NDF, the political arm of the CPP, which “killed” the talks because of its insistence on preconditions before the talks could resume.

The CPP in a statement blamed the Aquino administration for the collapse of the talks. “[President] Aquino is showing great discourtesy and lack of manners when it unilaterally terminated the talks relentlessly pursued over the past 20 years through irresponsible statements issued through the media,” it said.

CPP founder Joma Sison claimed the Philippine government wanted “nothing but the pacification and capitulation of the revolutionary forces of the Filipino people through indefinite unilateral ceasefires without the basic reforms required by The Hague Joint Declaration and subsequent agreements.”

Luis Jalandoni, head of the NDF peace panel, said they were still open to continuing peace talks with the government but said the peace negotiations “should address the roots of the armed conflict through fundamental economic, social and political reforms which will pave the way to a just and lasting peace.”

With both the government and NDF exchanging blaming each other on the collapse of the peace talks, it seems the road to peace continues to be long and bumpy.

Until recently, the peace talks with the Muslim rebels seemed headed to a positive conclusion, with both the government and MILF panels expressing optimism that a peace agreement could be reached within the year. But with the government’s attention distracted by the Sabah standoff, the sea disputes with China and Taiwan, and the recently concluded national elections, the MILF has expressed disgust over the delay in the conclusion of the peace talks.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said formal talks was deadlocked because the government had flip-flopped on its initial commitment on the annexes on wealth sharing that both sides initialed in February, which set wealth-sharing at 75-25 for Bangsamoro. But the government has since said it wanted a compromise of 50-50.

The flip-flop has damaged the credibility of the government negotiators, who, in obvious rush to forge a peace agreement before Aquino’s State of the Nation Address next month, initialed the wealth sharing draft without considering how such a deal would be accepted by the people or the Supreme Court.

It will take a lot of explaining for the government negotiators to convince the MILF leaders to take a step backwards and accept its 50-50 compromise. If the MILF stands firm on what was agreed upon in February and the government refuses to budge, it could cause a repeat of the 2008 blunder when the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain which was drafted and about to be signed in Malaysia by both sides.

The SC decision angered the MILF, which launched attacks in which 60 people were killed and more than 600,000 people were displaced from their homes. Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government reconsidered the draft on wealth-sharing precisely to avoid a repeat of that incident. Why did the government negotiators not consider that danger before initialing the draft in February in the first place?

If the Aquino government really wants peace, and I presume it does, it should tell its spokesmen and peace negotiators to town down their rhetoric and exert all efforts to bring the government and NDF panelists back to the negotiating table. At the same time, they should sack the government panelists for initialing the wealth-sharing draft without seriously considering its consequences.

Both sides have to show sincerity in pursuing peace, and the government should exert all efforts to reopen the door to negotiations. The Aquino administration’s lofty goals of economic growth and poverty alleviation depend a great deal on securing peace throughout the nation.

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