An 18-day ceasefire from December 16 to January 3 in preparation for a resumption of peace talks to be hosted by the Norwegian government in Oslo in February 2011 was agreed upon by the Philippine government and the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). In November and early December, NDFP International Representative, Luis Jalandoni and his wife, Coni Ledesma, NDFP negotiating panel member toured Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong to promote the resumption of peace talks.
Jalandoni, a former Catholic priest in Negros Occidental has had over forty years experience in the movement for social change while Ledesma, a former Catholic religious nun in Cebu was involved in social action in the Philippines until the couple received political asylum in the Netherlands in 1976.
The relationship between the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NDFP deteriorated in 2004 when CPP and the NDFP were included in the US and European Union list of terrorist groups. Following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 and the Bali massacre in 2002, a bilateral memorandum of understanding was signed by Australia and the Philippines on Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism in March 2003. This unfortunate turn of events escalated the occurrence of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines particularly during former President Arroyo’s administration.
Australian aid to the Philippines in 2009 amounted to $123 million, part of which went towards the training each year of 130 Filipino military officers in Australia in logistics and intelligence gathering. Australian civil and military aid often ended up in Mindanao in Southern Philippines. Mindanao is an island the size of Tasmania with a population of over 25 million. International Red Cross considers it a disaster area. The poorest provinces are located in Mindanao, which has a large Muslim minority within a largely Catholic country. Half of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are destined to work there and so it has become a highly militarized area with at least 300,000 people killed there since 1978, many of whom were civilians. Thousands were rendered homeless and became internal refugees.
A media release issued in Australia on the occasion of the NDFP speaking tours drew attention to Australia, next only to the United States, as the second largest supplier of military aid to the Philippines — aid from Australia’s taxpayers, inadvertently finding its way “in Philippine government military armed operations including surveillance, abduction and killings of community organisers…”
The appropriateness of foreign ‘aid’ is a matter for clarification. NDFP calls for the release of Eduardo Sarmiento, NDFP peace consultant arrested on 24 February 2009, to allow him to participate in the planned peace talks. He has forty years experience with peasants and poor people in Eastern Visayas. His representation could clarify issues such as “whether a $200 million US grant will really benefit Samar, and why there is a clamor over rising hunger, poverty and repression in Eastern Visayas,” NDFP Eastern Visayas spokesman, Fr Santiago Salas said.
Former President Arroyo had set up the Investment Defence Force (IDF) within the AFP to provide military protection for foreign companies. Australian companies, Western Mining Corporation (WMC) and BHP Billiton were cited as having benefited from such an arrangement. In 1999, NSW Greens M.P., Lee Rhiannon wrote that Philippine army soldiers were involved in a shooting incident with villagers who were opposed to Western Mining Company’s plans to mine copper, gold and silver in the tribal land of the B’laan tribe in Southern Mindanao. Some 200 B’laan people fled to the jungle to escape from the soldiers. Two tribal people were wounded and houses were raided. The incident occurred at a time when the Australian company was about to commence on-the-ground exploration. The B’laan people were concerned that the militarisation of some areas in Mindanao would force local people to leave their land, thus silencing active opposition to unwanted mining activities and avoiding the need for the government to relocate people.
The idea of integrating economic development and military vested interests is shared by an Australian leading demographer and author, Bernard Salt who believes in a greater military presence in Western Australia’s North-West and the Kimberley to protect multi-million dollar gas hubs. Salt said that “it defied logic that the $43 billion Gorgon LNG project near Karratha and the proposed $30 billion Browse gas hub 40km north of Broome could be unprotected...”
During the Ecumenical Bishops Forum on peace held in the Philippines last May, Jalandoni called for the resumption of peace talks by addressing “the roots of the armed conflict through fundamental economic, social and political reforms”. He felt that it was critical to work within an agreed framework for peace negotiations, such as the document forged in the Hague Joint Declaration of 1992. Jalandoni and Ledesma during their Sydney talks illustrated the yawning gap between the rich and the poor amongst the 60 million people living in the Philippines: 75% of whom are peasants; 15% workers; 7-8% middle class; 1-2% national bourgeoisie, and 1% ruling class and landlords dominating the entire country’s wealth and economy. They want the talks to refocus on the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) drawn in March 1998.
Some of the root causes of military conflict mentioned by Jalandoni and Ledesma is the need for a genuine land reform, for example, a more equitable and fair sharing of the proceeds from the harvest between landlord and peasants; the implementation of national (free) distribution of land, and initiation of cooperative farming. They also urged that the control of utilities be returned into people’s hands, assess onerous foreign loans and the impositions of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization in decision making that is injurious to the Filipino people’s national interest.
Jalandoni pointed out that 40% of the Philippine budget is earmarked to repay the country’s debt. He said that what keeps the Philippine economy afloat are remittances from overseas Filipino workers and the government’s labour export policy. The sacrifices of overseas Filipino workers are mirrored in 7,000 workers languishing in foreign jails, 108 workers in death row.
A recent joint statement by international advocacy groups, Migrante from Australia and New Zealand called for attention during the peace talks on migrant issues and concerns, such as:
On Filipino women’s issues, they call for reforms such as the rights of divorce, of women over their reproductive functions, and of same sex marriages.
On Indigenous rights, they stress the right to ancestral domain and to secession. Six million people in the Muslim south are struggling for self-determination; so are the Cordillera people in the north of the country.
The Ecumenical Bishops Forum held in August this year expressed the same concerns: “In Mindanao, we specifically see the further marginalization of the Indigenous Peoples and Bangsamoro communities. The people crying for their ancestral domains and their very right to self-determination are unheeded. ‘Development’ projects – mining operations, plantations, logging concessions – were introduced into Mindanao’s rich lands. And more than the struggle of the rightful owners against these aggressors, they have to fight among themselves for what meager resources are left.”
Gun fights continue between the Philippine government armed forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army. President Aquino said that his government was ready to go back to the table and begin talks. He appointed human rights lawyer, Alexander Padilla as his government’s chief negotiator with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NDFP. He warned, however, that “It is difficult to begin discussions in earnest if the smell of gun powder still hangs in the air. I call on everyone not to waste a good opportunity to rally behind our common aspiration for peace.”
“The grinding poverty and pervading suffering of the people, and the loss of lives because of unresolved conflicts hinder the attainment of genuine democracy but are solid motivations for the resumption of peace talks,” the Most Reverend Deogracias S. Iniquez Jr, head of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEEP) Secretariat said.
Addressing civil liberty and the roots of poverty as well as the strength of the Philippine government’s will and commitment may indeed be the foundation on which lasting peace in the Philippines can prevail.