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09 December 2023

PEACE TALKS: Marcos government, Left agree to restart peace talks


Asia’s longest internal armed conflict – 54 years in the Philippines - opens another chapter as the government and the armed revolutionary movement announced separately on Nov. 28 to revive peace talks. The negotiating panels of the Marcos government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) agreed five days earlier to resume the talks in a meeting in Oslo brokered by the Norwegian government.

Peace negotiations between the two sides collapsed in 2017 after the Duterte government walked away and declared the Leftist revolutionary group a “terrorist” organization. Following the collapse – and despite the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) signed by both sides in 1995 - several negotiators and consultants based in the Philippines were arrested or killed. The Communist Party of the Philippines’ top leaders – Benito Tiamzon and wife Wilma – were captured and killed extra-judicially in Samar, eastern Visayas, in August 2022.

The NDFP is the umbrella organization that represents the CPP and its armed component New People’s Army (NPA). The armed revolutionary movement is guided by Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought. Both the CPP and NPA were founded during the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos, Dec. 1968 and March 1969, respectively.
Started in 1987, the peace negotiations between the government and the NDFP have taken a meandering route although some breakthroughs have been made including a comprehensive agreement on human rights and international humanitarian law. The signing of an NDFP draft on social and economic reforms was mothballed when government negotiators, under military pressure, pulled out from the talks in Oslo.

In their Nov. 28 joint statement, the two parties acknowledged “the deep-rooted socioeconomic and political grievances and agreed to come up with a framework that sets the priorities for the peace negotiation”. The parties, the statement went on, “agree to a principled and peaceful resolution of the armed conflict.”

Meanwhile, to bolster the peace negotiations the CPP strongly asked for the release from imprisonment of their ranking comrades especially those who had participated in the peace talks. Following the failure of the peace talks six years ago, the peace negotiators were arrested by state authorities one after the other.

Previous presidents who entered into peace talks with the communists had agreed that the armed conflict could be settled only by addressing its roots. President Marcos, Jr. himself called the resumption of peace talks with the NDFP an “optimistic step” toward achieving a nonviolent resolution to the decades-old conflict. The country’s armed movement has been fighting for genuine land distribution, national industrialization, an end to social injustice, and the dismantling of U.S. imperialist control, among other causes. The failure to address the structural roots is the offspring that continues to fuel the armed conflict with the Philippines becoming one of the less developed countries in Asia. How the Marcos government not to mention the powerful political families that dominate the society and the military establishment will accede to the armed Left’s demand for institutional reforms remains to be seen.

As part of the administration's comprehensive peace initiatives, the President granted amnesty to former members of communist groups and other rebel organizations to encourage them to return to the folds of law. Marcos Jr., through his executive secretary Lucas Bersamin, issued four proclamations, granting amnesty to former members of the CPP-NPA-NDF, and members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the dormant Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa ng Pilipinas/Revolutionary Proletarian Army/Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPMP-RPA-ABB). Leaders of the MILF have since signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government and now lead an autonomous government in southern Mindanao, the Bangsa Moro for Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Peace talks with the NDFP have been grueling and intractable. And Marcos Jr. has until 2028 to make his peace plan succeed.

ICC jurisdiction over the Philippines still contentious, Marcos says

President Marcos, Jr. may yet find himself at loggerheads with the former president and opportunistic political ally Duterte following an admission that returning under the fold of the Den Haag-based International Criminal Court (ICC) is “under study”. Marcos and his justice secretary Jose Remulla had earlier threatened to arrest the UN human rights prosecutor upon arrival in the Philippines to investigate complaints filed with the ICC against the former president and other accomplices over the extra-judicial killing of thousands of drug suspects during his term as Davao City mayor and in his early years as president. Following accusations by UN officials about his drug war, Duterte withdrew the country’s membership with the Rome Statute which established the ICC in 2018.

As a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and signatory to the Rome Statute, the Philippines is duty-bound to uphold international law. Duterte’s withdrawal of the Philippine membership in the ICC has tainted the Philippines’ standing in the world community. But it has been so owing to the unresolved political killings that have victimized thousands of activists since the 1970s until today. The killings have been condemned by both local and foreign rights organizations.

The ICC is a permanent judicial body established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998 to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals accused of genocidewar crimes, and crimes against humanity and to impose prison sentences upon individuals who are found guilty of such crimes. It was established as a court of last resort to prosecute the most heinous offenses in cases where national courts fail to act. Unlike the International Court of Justice, which hears disputes between states, the ICC handles prosecutions of individuals. The ICC investigation in the Philippines covers alleged crimes committed from November 2011 to June 2016, including the large number of extrajudicial killings in Davao City while former President Rodrigo Duterte was its mayor, as well as thousands of killings throughout the country during his presidency’s “war on drugs” up until March 16, 2019, a day before the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, took effect. 

Coincidentally, two non-opposition House lawmakers joined the Makabayan bloc and Liberal Party president, Rep. Edcel Lagman, in calling on Marcos to support the ICC probe of Duterte. They filed a resolution urging the President to cooperate with the ICC’s investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity committed in Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign. A similar resolution was filed by opposition senator Risa Hontiveros.

In a related development, United Nations Special Rapporteur Ian Fry urged the government on Nov. 16 to revoke the Anti-Terrorism Act and abolish its anti-communist task force, noting how both were facilitating human rights violations and the harassment of environmental defenders.

The international environmental law and policy expert spoke on the last day of his 10-day visit to the country to study and identify how the adverse impacts of climate change were affecting the “full and effective enjoyment of human rights.”

Citing “horrific stories” from civil society groups and indigenous peoples (IPs) organizations who were subjected to attacks, he suggested that the government disband the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) “because it … is operating beyond its original mandate and is Red-tagging people from the community.”

Israel-Palestine Conflict: Change in Marcos’s policy positions?

In a related issue, the Philippines in November voted in favor of seven out of eight UN resolutions that singled out or condemned Israel. The Philippine delegation to the UN in New York City led by Ambassador and Permanent Representative Antonio Lagdameo, however, abstained on one resolution tabled for deliberation before the UN General Assembly.

The Philippines voted in favor of the UN resolution condemning the Israeli practices in Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem and Syrian Golan. The resolution reaffirmed that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem and Syrian Golan are “illegal” and “obstacles to peace and economic development.” All the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, voted in favor of the resolution.

The Philippine delegation also voted in favor of six other resolutions:

Conversely, the Philippines abstained from the strong UN resolution demanding that Israel cooperate with the UN Special Committee in implementing its mandate to investigate alleged Israel human rights violations in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and other Palestinian territories. (As of December 3, over 15,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, have lost their lives in the Gaza Strip due to relentless and indiscriminate air strikes and artillery shells. Another 1.9 million have been displaced, most of them ordered by Israeli forces to evacuate, but there are no longer safe sanctuaries in the entire Gaza strip.)

The resolution was adopted by 85 countries. Aside from the Philippines, there were 71 others which abstained, while 13 including Australia, US, Canada voted against it. The same resolution also called for “immediate cessation of all illegal Israeli settlement activities and the construction of the wall, the lifting of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as the complete cessation of the excessive and indiscriminate use of force and military operations against the civilian population.” Palestine said the resolution did not reflect what’s happening in Gaza where thousands of civilians and children were killed. Israel also complained that the resolution did not mention the October 7 attack by the Hamas militants in southern Israel.

President Marcos, Jr. in October had supported Israel’s counter-offensives against Hamas “terrorists” which attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The president, however, did not react to the “two-state solution” to the continuing conflict (Camp David Accords, 1987) as proposed by the UN, China, the 22-member League of Arab States, and EU countries.

Israel supports the Philippines’ armed forces modernization with special counter-terrorism training programs. The two countries’ special ties date back to 1947, when the Philippines, under President Manuel Roxas, cast the tie-breaker vote at the UN to separate Israel from Palestine. (Israel has since thrown out the Palestinians who are forced to live in Jordan (3.24 million), Lebanon, and Syria (1 million plus), and about 750,000 live in Saudi Arabia.) Likewise, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 creating the State of Israel. Tel Aviv and Manila established diplomatic ties 10 years later.

Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya or Islamic Resistance Movement) is a Palestinian group that has run Gaza since 2007. Hamas has fought several wars with Israel since it took power, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and carrying out other deadly attacks. In response, Israel has repeatedly attacked Hamas with air strikes, sending in troops in 2008 and 2014.

Philippine elections: Smartmatic disqualification

At least since 2010, Philippine elections which are held every three years have been marred by traditional and non-traditional irregularities such as vote buying and missing ballot boxes and later by cases of electronic program manipulation, unexplained sudden spike in votes, vote padding and other reasons. All these and more explain why many election results have been contested by losing candidates and political parties. On the other hand, the country’s election supervisory body – Commission on Elections (Comelec) – has faced challenges given the fact that all its seven members including its chairman are appointed by the executive office, triggering allegations of partisanship and bias.

Since the 2010 presidential elections, the computerized electoral process had been challenged by legal and technical infirmities including lack of transparency and accountability, unreliability and other questions arising from violations of election provisions including but not limited to the source code review. A major constitutional issue was also raised: Why allow a foreign company to manage Philippine elections exposing the highly-contentious political event to issues of sovereignty and foreign meddling. In the frontline of these election battles were watch groups such as CenPEG and the multisectoral network which it co-founded – Automated Election Systems Watch (AES Watch). After 13 years, Smartmatic, the foreign election provider – originally Venezuela-based but now London-headquartered – was dealt a fatal blow when the Comelec last November disqualified the company from all forthcoming procurements.

Election observers have noted however that this seemingly tough stance by the country’s election body will open a Pandora’s box allowing other companies including foreign ones to replace the Smartmatic with bigger issues. To prevent all these from happening, watch groups including CenPEG have proposed an alternative Hybrid Election System (HES). The hybrid system essentially restores publicly accountable manual voting and counting combined with the electronic transmission of precinct election results to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. Pending in Congress are bills filed to support the new system.
The latest proposed reforms of the country’s electoral process do not, however, negate the fact that elections will remain dominated by powerful political families with vested interests that make it difficult to institute social, economic, and political structural reforms including foreign policies.

State of the economy: Questions

In the economic front, the Marcos government declared in November that the economy remains firmly on the path to recovery and progress despite growing below target. The finance secretary, Benjamin E. Diokno, said the country’s first three-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth this year of 5.5 percent was still “solid.” Nevertheless, he said, the growth figure for the nine months fell below the government's target range of 6.0 percent to 7.0 percent.”

Nonetheless, the government ignores other consequential economic indicators, especially the distribution of income and wealth which are highly skewed in favor of the richer families.

Marcos’s economic team may be talking prematurely. Government optimistic projections on the economy do not reflect ground zero realities. In its latest survey, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that the quality of life of many Filipinos has worsened over the past year, the highest so far under the Marcos administration. The survey found 30 percent of the respondents saying their personal quality of life worsened in the past 12 months. (Some 28 percent said it got better, while 41 percent said it was the same.

Similarly, the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) downgraded the Marcos government’s economic growth forecast, saying it will instead grow at a slower rate than earlier expected due to high inflation and weaker external demand. AMRO further said economic growth is forecast at 5.6 percent in 2023, slower than the 5.9 percent forecast in September, and the 6.2 percent forecast in July. The impact of high inflation remains a key concern for the Philippine economy. The outlook for next year was also trimmed to 6.3 percent from 6.5 percent, also below the official 6.5- to 8.0 percent goal for 2024-2028.

Maritime tensions

Maritime tensions between China and the Philippines continue to irritate their bilateral relations. The two countries had earlier agreed that the tensions do not represent the sum total of their relations noting that in other aspects like trade ties remain stable.

On the sidelines of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in San Francisco last November, the Philippines president, Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for an unscheduled meeting. Marcos, according to Philippine reports, sought ways to reduce tensions in the South China Sea and restore Filipino fishermen's access to fishing grounds. The two governments, Marcos reportedly told China’s leader, need to continue to communicate in order ”to maintain peace, and keep open sea lanes and airways over the South China Sea.”

Marcos said he asked for a meeting to "once again voice concern on some of the incidents that were happening between Chinese vessels and Philippine vessels. No further details were available. The two leaders held a summit earlier in January in Beijing.

A bilateral dialogue mechanism was established in 2017 between then-President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to resolve maritime issues. This appears to be the same mechanism that Marcos has sought to activate.

But Marcos’s diplomatic tact seems to have been eclipsed by his own defense secretary. In November, the country’s defense department said Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. appears to be reluctant in pushing for the conduct of a bilateral discussion between the governments of the Philippines and China concerning its territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The DND report said Teodoro asked China should first show sincerity that it is willing to hear the Philippines' side, and the bilateral discussion should not be used as a "weapon" to limit Manila's assertion of its rights. "If there are going to be bilateral discussions, it must be based on fundamental principles and it must be based on sincerity. It shall not be used merely as a weapon to constrain the Philippines," Teodoro said.

On the other hand, Beijing has accused the U.S. of fueling tensions in the SCS not only through provocative actions on Chinese structures but also by conducting joint maritime exercises. On Nov. 21, the U.S. and the Philippines carried out three-day joint maritime and aerial patrols in waters near Taiwan island, and some South China Sea islands, marking the first bilateral patrols since they were halted in 2016. These signify the U.S.' “manipulation of the Philippines and involvement in South China Sea affairs have returned to a high level,” observers note. Chinese analyst Li Kaisheng, vice president of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, also said since Australia has traditionally relied on the U.S. in the security domain, it is not surprising that the Philippines and Australia have conducted their first joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea a few days afterward, from Nov. 25 to 27. “Be it directly launching joint patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea, illegally entering into China's territorial waters, or involving itself in regional affairs through Australia's participation, the U.S. has a primary objective - to boost the confidence of the Philippines and ensure that Manila will continue to maintain a sustained confrontational, even provocative stance, toward China. This is because the U.S. needs to maintain a heightened level of tension in the region to serve its regional strategy,” Li told the English-language Global Times.

Separate CoC talks will make maritime resolution more fractious

But Marcos Jr. appears to be inconsistent with his declarations addressed to the Chinese president to open communications dialogue with China to resolve maritime issue. In late November, he disclosed that the Philippine government has started negotiating a separate Code of Conduct (CoC) with other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations amid “the turtle-paced talks with China” over the territorial row in the West Philippine Sea. The separate CoC is with Southeast Asian countries with which the Philippines also has disputes over the waterway namely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. So far, none of the countries has confirmed Marcos’s statement on a separate CoC.

Discussions on the China-ASEAN CoC were supposed to conclude this year. Marcos’s disclosures on a separate CoC may even make the current discussions slower if not contradictory and more complicated. #


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