Back in the 1970s, the dictator Marcos, with substantial military assistance from the US, waged "all-out war" against the Maoist CPP-NDF-NPA, labeling them as "communist terrorists" or "CTs." Despite intense "counter-terrorist" operations, the CPP and the CPP-aligned "national democrats" (NDs) attracted tens of thousands of adherents, growing into a powerful, nationwide insurgency. The "terrorist" label did not catch on. The war against the "reds" failed miserably.
Today, at a time when the Philippine communist movement is claimed to be a "spent force," the Arroyo administration has called for an "all-out war" against the Maoists, and its ally-benefactor, the US, has revived the "terrorist" tag, putting the CPP-NDF-NPA in the list of "foreign terrorist organizations" or FTOs. The inclusion of the CPP in the FTO list has been hailed by the Arroyo government, and has probably been made at its behest.
"All-out war" and the tagging of the CPP-NDF-NPA as "terrorists" mark a shift from a "soft" to a "hard" approach of the Arroyo administration towards the Maoist insurgency. The shift indicates the exasperation of Arroyo with the government-NDF peace negotiations, in which the NDF has actually been making some gains at the government´s expense. The talks, which have turned into a mere power contest between the two sides, are now in danger of collapsing in the light of the government´s "all-out war" against "terrorists."
In the months just before and after EDSA II, Arroyo was not just "soft" towards the CPP. The relations were almost chummy. Open ND forces under BAYAN participated actively in the "Oust Erap" campaign that culminated in EDSA II and the installation of Arroyo as president.
Partly as a "confidence-building" measure for the impending resumption of government-NDF peace talks and partly in the hope of drawing the CPP-NDF-NPA from the battlefield to the electoral arena, Arroyo´s People Power Coalition backed the NDs´ Bayan Muna in the May 2001 party-list elections. Thanks in no small measure to PPC´s support, Bayan Muna topped the party-list vote.
For the NDs, the Oslo talks carried on the momentum of EDSA II and Bayan Muna. In itself, the resumption of peace negotiations was already a major political gain for the NDF. In Oslo, however, the NDF gained more than in previous rounds. Prior to 2001, the NDF, in its bid to attain "belligerency status," had tried several times to get the Philippine government to accept the offer of good offices of a few Western countries for the holding of government-NDF peace talks. The government had always rejected the idea. The NDF finally got its wish - on a silver platter - from Arroyo. Shortly after assumption, the Arroyo government, confident that no country would ever grant the NDF belligerency status under present global conditions, proposed that the talks be held in Oslo under the auspices of the Norwegian government.
Upon resumption of talks, the government side made a tactical blunder in agreeing to stick to the piecemeal approach drawn up during the Ramos period - separate agreements on human rights and international humanitarian law; economic and social reforms; political reforms; and cessation of hostilities, before the drawing up of a final peace agreement. Such an approach risked producing an unduly protracted negotiation process that the NDF could turn into an excellent venue for conducting propaganda.
The NDF did take full advantage of the opportunity provided by the Oslo talks to conduct its usual propaganda - "expose and oppose" the "basic evils" of Philippine society and the "rottenness" of the Arroyo government. (The NDF somewhat overplayed its hand when it issued press statements from Oslo hailing the assassination of former governor Rodolfo Aguinaldo. The Norwegian government sharply rebuked the NDF, emphasizing that Oslo is a city of peace.)
Early this year, the Arroyo government began to realize that it was not making much progress in its attempts to draw the CPP-NDF-NPA closer to a negotiated settlement and that, in fact, its adversary was actually outmaneuvering it at the negotiating table. The government dropped the piecemeal approach and opted instead to push, mainly through "back-channeling," for a single, comprehensive peace agreement. Neither did this get anywhere.
Arroyo´s shift to a "hard" approach towards the CPP-NDF-NPA indicates not only that her "soft" approach has failed but also that she has even helped the Maoist movement regain some ground. The revival of the open ND movement through EDSA II and Bayan Muna has produced fresh NPA recruits that have helped the guerrilla force recover in several areas. Thanks to the Oslo talks, the NDF has made modest gains in its "diplomatic struggle." It now probably imagines that it is nearer belligerency status.
Danger of Witchhunt
As in the Marcos period, "all-out war" and "terrorist"-tagging are of dubious efficacy. Widespread poverty and the persistence of great social disparities provide fertile conditions for insurgency; hence, this cannot be wiped out solely or mainly through military means.
In the Philippine context, the term "terrorist" has been used so loosely in the past in referring to all sorts of armed groups - CPP-NDF-NPA, MNLF, MILF, April 6 syndicates like the Pentagon Gang - that it has become a cliché and standard sensationalist tabloid fare. Terrorist groups are now a dime a dozen. Even Malacañang is hard put to define the T word, which, it turns out, is non-existent in Philippine legal lexicon.
It may well be that "all-out war" and "terrorist"-tagging are but a tactical maneuver of the Arroyo government to seize the initiative from the CPP and to push the NDF to agree to a comprehensive political settlement in quick time. If so, this is bound to be largely ineffectual.
It is unlikely that the European Union will bow to US pressure and put the CPP-NDF-NPA on its own FTO list or that the Dutch government will send CPP chief Jose Ma. Sison packing. The US, Dutch and British governments have frozen CPP assets in their respective countries. But CPP assets are spread out in various parts of the globe, and, perhaps needless to say, are registered under various dummies.
That the declaration of "all-out war" and "terrorist" labeling have come at a time when an ultra-rightist group like the National Alliance for Democracy (NAD) has re-emerged and has been putting out fervid anti-communist propaganda in the media is a most worrisome development. The rhetoric of "all-out war" against "terrorists" could give rise to a real all-out war in which intense military operations would be combined with a horrendous anticommunist witchhunt and vigilantism that could be worse than the Alsa Masa hysteria of the 1980s.
At this point, it appears that neither the government nor the NDF is really serious in making the necessary concessions and compromises for a comprehensive political settlement. The government is simply interested in getting the CPP-NDF-NPA to demobilize its guerrilla forces and to accept the Philippine constitution - to surrender, in short - without instituting any substantial political, economic or social changes, especially in relation to agrarian reform and issues of national sovereignty.
It is clear from the CPPs pronouncements that its central objective of armed seizure of state power has remained unchanged and that engagements in such arenas as elections and the negotiating table are but tactics in the pursuit of the strategic objective. Jose Ma. Sison, it seems, wants to make a contribution of sorts to Maoist theory: That electoral participation and protracted negotiations are useful forms of struggle in "protracted people´s war."
Peace negotiations, not "all-out war" or "terrorist"-tagging, remain the only viable recourse for resolving the long-standing armed conflict between the government and the CPP-NDF-NPA. A comprehensive political settlement is possible because there are genuine reformers in the government, despite all the trapos in it, and because there are elements within the CPP-NDF-NPA who, despite their avowed allegiance to Maoist ideology, are actually open to political settlement or are slowly waking up to the realities of the 21st century.
It is time for people´s organizations, non-governmental organizations, church groups, human rights groups, business groups, etc. that want peace and are not partisan for or aligned with either the government or the NDF to revive the peace movement and put pressure on the contending parties to work out a political solution.
For greater clout, third-party intervention may have to be two-pronged. Perhaps it is also time for a credible mediator to step into the picture, and for peace advocates to work for the entry of such a mediator. The Norwegian government has already offered to play a more active role, possibly even a mediator role, in the peace process, for as long as both the government and the NDF agree.
At the moment, the Arroyo government is reluctant to accept this offer, as this could be interpreted as another political coup for the NDF. It may well be such, but Arroyo can rest assured that indeed, in this day and age, no foreign government is ever going to grant the NDF the much-ballyhooed belligerency status.
With strong third-party intervenors, neither the government nor the NDF can afford to remain intransigent, and those in the contending sides who are more open and willing to arrive at a comprehensive political settlement can come to the fore.
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