Can the Philippines’ new president end a communist insurgency that’s been fought for almost 50 years?

The government of Rodrigo Duterte and the communist-led National Democratic Front have agreed to resume stalled peace talks this month. Will this finally resolve the armed conflict in the Philippines? A quick glance at the conflict’s history will help us predict its future.

A guerrilla war has been raging in the Philippine countryside since 1969 between the Maoist-inspired New People’s Army and government troops. The war is caused, among others, by extreme poverty and deprivation in the country, especially in rural areas.

The rebels gained a nationwide following in the 1970s and early 1980s when Martial Law was imposed across the Philippines. In 1986, the People Power movement finally deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and the new government of Cory Aquino initiated peace talks with the rebels while vowing to pursue meaningful reforms in governance and economic policies.

The peace talks bogged down after the NDF withdrew from the negotiations in the wake of the killing of 13 protesting farmers near the presidential palace in 1987. Informal talks continued but no agreements were signed until the end of Aquino’s term in 1992.

It was during the term of President Fidel Ramos, a former military general, when formal peace talks restarted, leading to the finalisation of several important peace documents. These were The Hague Declaration, which identified the substantive agenda of the formal peace negotiations, and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law or CARHRIHL.

But two months after signing CARHRIHL in 1998, President Joseph Estrada declared an all-out war against NPA and Muslim rebels. Like Marcos, in 2001 a popular people’s movement ousted him.

President Gloria Arroyo, who succeeded Estrada, resumed talks with the NDF but became disinterested when her government lobbied to make the Philippines the second front in the United States-led ‘War on Terror’. The US included the NPA and NDF leaders in the list of global terrorists, which gave the Arroyo government another reason to abandon the talks.

When Arroyo was reelected in 2004, she agreed to establish a Joint Monitoring Committee to implement the provisions of CARHRIHL. But the peace talks didn’t move forward until the end of her term in 2010. A year after her reelection victory, she lost popular political support because of widespread allegations of electoral fraud, corruption, and human rights violations.

Instead of pursuing peace talks, the Arroyo government advocated the defeat of the NPA by destroying or weakening its purported support base in the civilian population. This new doctrine in the counterinsurgency drive led to rampant human rights abuses in the provinces. Hundreds of activists were killed and disappeared because of their suspected links to NPA rebels.

Arroyo’s successor, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, initially appeared interested in talking peace with the Reds. Many encouraged him to conclude the peace process that began during the term of his mother.

Some preliminary talks were made in 2011 but they didn’t result in anything substantial. Both parties accused each other of being insincere. The NDF protested the continuing arrest of its peace consultants and other high-ranking members of the NPA.

Meanwhile, the Aquino government wanted to ignore previously signed peace agreements in order to develop a better framework on how to conduct the peace talks. It also challenged the NPA to declare a ceasefire as a goodwill measure.

Aquino’s peace panel said the NDF’s demand to release political prisoners prevented the resumption of the peace talks. On the other hand, the NDF blamed Aquino for refusing to acknowledge several of its proposals on how to accelerate the regular track of the peace negotiations.

Aquino’s peace legacy is mixed. His government made significant achievements in finalising a peace agreement with the Bangsamoro in Muslim Mindanao. But he failed to advance the peace process with the Reds.

Prospects for peace under Duterte
In the past three decades, some landmark agreements concerning human rights were signed between the government and the NDF; but overall, the peace talks yielded little in resolving one of the world’s longest communist insurgencies. Despite the military assertion that the NPA is already a spent force, the rebels continue to operate in many provinces across the country.

Therefore, there is valid reason to push for the resumption of the suspended peace talks, particularly since it will bring immediate relief in militarised communities. It will also provide concrete opportunities for all stakeholders to share their views and proposals on how to promote genuine development, unity and justice in the country.

Fortunately, President Duterte has identified peace as a top priority of his administration. It is noteworthy to mention that the new government and the NDF have already agreed to resume the peace talks this month. Duterte also said that he is considering the release of political prisoners, particularly NDF peace consultants. In other words, the roadblocks to restarting the peace process in the past decade have been removed already.

But Duterte should learn from the experience and shortcomings of his predecessors. It is not enough to simply renew the talks with the Reds. He must see to it that it will produce real benefits for the people who are living in conflict areas. He must also be ready to consider the NDF and NPA as potential allies in addressing the chronic poverty, hunger, landlessness, corruption, and rampant criminality in the country.

Unlike past presidents who harbor strong anti-communist bias, Duterte seems capable of rethinking the government’s peace strategy since he claims to be a socialist. In addition to this, he also has maintained good relations with the NPA in Davao.

Talking peace is the better response to the NPA threat instead of continuing the repressive counterinsurgency campaigns of past governments, which only succeeded in driving more peasants and indigenous peoples to join the rebels.

Understandably, Duterte’s war on drugs and other crimes is given more coverage by the global media. But Duterte’s admirable aim to establish a lasting peace in the provinces deserves special attention too.

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator.