SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR. has been a long-time Bicolano human rights and IHL lawyer; legislative consultant and legal scholar; peace advocate, researcher and writer, whose initial engagement with the peace process was in Bicol with the first GRP-NDFP nationwide ceasefire in 1986. He is Presiding Judge of the 9th Municipal Circuit Trial Court (MCTC) of Nabua-Bato, Camarines Sur and Acting Presiding Judge of the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) of Balatan, Camarines Sur. This piece was published in the December 19, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.
There are definitely strategic considerations on both sides now. For revolutionary forces like the NDFP, a prolonged ceasefire would go against the momentum of revolutionary armed struggle as the principal and main form of struggle in a strategy of PPW (protracted peoples war) to effect the kind of radical social transformation needed to solve the basic problems of the Filipino people. Thus, for the most part, the NDFP has been averse to a ceasefire, especially a prolonged one. But so has the AFP for the most part, seeing a ceasefire as not only arresting the momentum of its overall counter-insurgency operation plans but as also providing a respite which the NPA would take advantage of to regroup, regain strength and recover lost ground. Thus, the norm for the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations has been to have no accompanying ceasefire, unlike the case of the Mindanao peace process with MILF and the earlier one with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It is a mode of “fighting while talking.”
Yet peace talks cannot also go on interminably without any results to show in terms of various social, economic and political reform measures. Peace talks should not be as protracted as the armed conflict of four decades. Though most conflict-affected communities, if you ask them, like the Agta tribal folk in the Sierra Madre Mountains, would not mind protracted peace talks as long as they are accompanied by a protracted ceasefire.
One arrangement that would be fair to most people would be to have a reasonable time frame (like say the 18 months agreed in Oslo) for peace talks with an accompanying ceasefire. And instead of making agreement on a ceasefire dependent on certain progress of the talks, the ceasefire can be agreed on first at the start of peace talks and then its continuation or discontinuation can be made dependent on such progress of the talks or lack of it. Such ceasefire is both time-bound and agenda-bound.
But what can the NPA do during an 18-month ceasefire? It can do what the AFP does, including keeping itself trim and fit, in fighting form, short of fighting the other party to the ceasefire. It can also consult its fellow non-state armed group (NSAG) and “tactical ally” MILF, which is well-versed in the ceasefire mode (since 1998) without losing revolutionary momentum and fighting capacity. The NDFP should take a leap of faith too (as the MILF has) in giving the peace talks a chance, albeit within a reasonable time frame and which depends on the dynamics and directions of the talks. In a ceasefire, the force concerned keeps its arms but does not engage in military offensives. The real test lies in the reform merits of the comprehensive agreements negotiated and produced.
Pursuing and completing the resumed peace negotiations on the remaining substantive agenda is easier said than done. And more so with a “shortcut” 18-month timeframe. The first substantive agenda item on human rights and international humanitarian law is the easiest of the four substantive agenda items but it took practically the whole six-year term of the Ramos administration from 1992 to 1998 to complete. Its implementation since then up to now has been problematic—and thus should also be addressed by the peace talks. In any case, the parties have shown some flexibility in speeding up the peace negotiations. We are also taking a leap of faith, given historical patterns, that they can do it in only 18 months. But if they can agree on the key details even only of land reform, military reform and electoral reform, then they would have done well enough so as to perhaps justify giving them and the process more time for completion and even possible transformation, including the continuation of war “by other means.”
It is still better in the meantime that the parties devote their verbal and written energies to the remaining substantive agenda instead of bickering and trading accusations. Along with the continuing armed hostilities, these only “draw attention away” from the substantive issues of the armed conflict. They are counter-productive to “the spirit of encouraging and accelerating the peace negotiations.”