Philippines: Rumours of peace


By Peter M. Sales

No leader ever swept into office on a higher wave of popular support than Corazon Aquino; few ever departed more undone or unsung. The hero of the heady days of People Power presided over a stagnant government and an economy going nowhere; her final hollow victory was surviving the seven coup attempts against her. After an initial overture to the rebels, she launched a policy of total war which carried death and destruction to the impoverished countryside and led to an increase in militarisation throughout the archipelago.

After the May elections and the advent of the Fidel Ramos administration, an outbreak of peace was virtually inevitable. The new president has been a leading advocate of a strategy which aims to cripple the communist revolution by isolating its leaders and undercutting its support.

Ramos was totally identified with the "surrender or die" policy of Aquino, so there is no surprise that he now continues it. He also plans to introduce the death penalty for rebellion.

Congress is pushing Ramos to show more innovative leadership, House majority leader Ronaldo Zamora claiming that the presidential proposals "will have no dramatic impact". There is widespread disappointment that Malacanang has offered nothing more than an elaborate amnesty program.

Ramos dearly wants to end the insurgency so that the armed forces can be switched to external defence, with more sophisticated ships, aircraft, missiles and other military hardware. Apart from damping the mutinous rumblings from the barracks, the Philippines could thereby gain a higher profile in ASEAN, exert greater pressure on its neighbours in regard to contentious hot spots like the Spratly Islands, and become a more effective regional ally of the United States.

Ramos is fashioning his peace initiative in accord with a counterinsurgency strategy which he hopes will end the 23-year insurgency by demoralising his opponents and defeating the armed rebels. Since his return to Malacanang (as a Marcos relative, messenger of the US and chief architect of martial law, he was never far from the presidential palace), Ramos has made a number of forthright statements about crushing the insurgency.

An early indication of his plans was the retention of General Lisandro Abadia as armed forces chief of staff. Abadia helped to formulate the current counterinsurgency strategy known as "gradual constriction". After some initial success, this scheme has largely broken down, but Ramos appears willing to persevere with it for the moment.

The chances of peace, at least in the short term, are not promising. There have been a number of government overtures to the international Democratic Front in Utrecht, Holland, but these are stalemated on a choice of a venue. The Ramos team is anxious to get negotiations under way somewhere in the Philippines. The NDF wants them held overseas for safety's sake and in order to acquire belligerent status in the process. Neither side has suggested a cease-fire.

Ramos has also sought to gain credit by freeing two prominent political prisoners. In the case of Satur Ocampo, alleged head of the NDF and its chief negotiator at the failed cease-fire talks in 1986-87, bail should have been granted some time ago. The release of Romulo Kintanar is more surprising. Rumoured to be the commander of the New People's Army, Kintanar was recently recaptured after a highly publicised escape from Camp Crame.

Ramos he anticipates that his gesture will sow discord within the underground movement. Ocampo belongs to a faction derisively known as the "surrenderists"; Kintanar is described as a hardliner and represents those cadres who want to shortcut protracted war by launching city-based insurrection.

Presidential clemency has been very selective. While Ramos has released dozens of detainees already, he is using some captives as bargaining chips and hundreds more remain in jail. Aquino began a policy of bringing criminal charges against political detainees. Many are serving long sentences in the civil prison system. Moreover, arrests of activists from legal organisations have increased dramatically.

Congress has repealed the Anti-Subversion Law, and Ramos legalised the Communist Party of the Philippines, but it is too early to know what this will mean in practice. The CPP is presently trying to organise a grassroots review of policy in order to become more responsive to members. Studies of earlier setbacks and defeats have already led to internal debate.

The NPA appears to have modified the dictates of classic Maoism, and may end its efforts to achieve strategic stalemate with the armed forces. The rebels will return to what they do best — guerilla activity in the countryside. If successful, however, they will be among the first to seize state power from this stage of insurgency. Such momentous decisions require much debate within the NDF and its member organisations.

Ramos' peace plans remain tightly linked to counterinsurgency efforts. They appear to offer little more than a means by which rebels can surrender. The administration appears unwilling to discuss the socioeconomic problems which provoked the insurgency in the first place.

Ramos is even more vague about economic change than his predecessor. Land reform has become a dead issue, and general disillusionment is widespread. The powerful elites remain firmly in control. The new president enjoys the support of the Manindigan (Take a Stand) group of businessmen, which was set up after the death of Ninoy Aquino. This n sentiment, but very conservative in all other respects.

Nonetheless, progress may eventuate from the current discussions. Unlike Aquino, who was always being attacked as incompetent and soft on the communists, Ramos can talk about a settlement without the risk of such allegations. He is regarded as ruthless, calculating and a mainstay of counter-revolution since Marcos days.

Formal talks will begin after tentative agreement on an agenda. Malacanang has abandoned a long-time insistence on the 1987 Philippine Constitution as the basis of discussions.

Could the sceptics be proved wrong? Some sort of political settlement might be achieved, yet even this presents grave risks. One of the most problematic features of any peace initiative is the fighting which erupts immediately beforehand as each party jockeys for position. A terrible irony for an impoverished country wracked by war is that the approach of peace could lead to renewed fighting.
[Peter Sales is a lecturer in the Department of History and Politics at Wollongong University.]