Communist pullout from talks, threats: just noise?

By Ivan Gan, IPS, Asia Times 4 June 1999

MANILA—By withdrawing from long-drawn peace talks to settle a three-decade old insurgency, the communist movement in the Philippines is once again testing the mettle of the government.

After about a year of talking to the government of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, the National Democratic Front (NDF) announced it was pulling out of the talks on May 30.

It accused the government of treason and betrayal by compromising national interest through the May ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows large-scale military exercise between the Philippine and American armed forces.

For the Netherlands-based NDF, the agreement allows U.S.military forces the license to occupy all or any part of the country for any length of time, to commit crimes with impunity against the people.

The VFA was ratified by the Senate on May 27, despite searing opposition by Catholic leaders, activists, some constitutional experts and environmental groups.

But critics say the NDF, the umbrella group of leftist organizations in the Philippines, was just looking for an excuse to pull out of the talks—which had not been going far anyway.

This is just the latest breakdown in the talks, which had collapsed with the government of Corazon Aquino and were left unfinished by that of Estrada's predecessor, Fidel Ramos.

Given the much-diminished military strength of the NDF'sfighters, as well as its political influence, through the years,many think the NDF pullout was more noise than anything else.

But fighting will probably be intensified in the coming weeks and months, NDF panel chair Luis Jalandoni warned at a press conference at the organization's headquarters in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He said 81 guerrilla fronts in the country would escalate the people's war for national liberation.

To that, Armed Forces chief General Joselin Nazareno said:They can always air their threats like that but I doubt it cane done.

From a peak of 26,000 armed regulars who are members of theNDF's fighting arm, the New People's Army (NPA) now numbers 5,000or fewer, military estimates say.

Peace talks between the NDF and the Estrada government also stalled in February, when Estrada suspended them in the wake oft he NPA's kidnapping of two military officers, including general. The talks resumed after the NDF released the officers.

As in the kidnap case, chances are that the latest bout ofsabre-rattling by the NDF will draw a blank—judging from there action of the Estrada administration.

During his weekly radio program last week, he said the government will bring the full force of the law to bear upon the rebels if they persist in their insurgency.

The NDF or NFA has no more issues to go against the government because my government is all-out pro-poor. All our priority projects are pro-poor, argued Estrada, attributing theNDF's tough stand to the lack of an agenda against his administration.

The head of the government's peace panel, Howard Dee, dismissed the menacing stance by the NDF leaders as a swaggering exercise.

Failing to extract from the government the recognition of its claim to a sovereign and belligerent status, the NDF has decided to terminate the peace talks, he added.

In recent years, the government and NDF had been discussing Ali st of demands that dealt with procedural matters for talks,including safety guarantees for NDF leaders, and substantive issues addressing the leftist movement's demands for reform,ranging from genuine land reform to constitutional changes.

The two sides had dwelled mostly on procedural issues. In the wake of the breakdown, the Estrada government has terminated the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantee (JASIG), which provides communist leaders involved in peace talks immunity from arrest, and nullified all their safe conduct passes.

Even as the NDF vows to take its cause to the battlefields, its two senior leaders, Jalandoni and Jose Maria Sison, who founded the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1969, say they will only resume talks after Estrada's term ends in July 2004.

Many people—even those who belittle Estrada's claim of running a pro-poor government—dismiss the NDF's threats and point out that the days of frequent clashes between government soldiers and NPAguerrillas have long gone.

But in a recent editorial, the Manila Times said: The threat of a resumption of bloody hostilities by NPAs cannot bes imply overlooked.

Soldiers have expressed unease with the negligible, if still,amazing, resurgence in the manpower and firepower strength of what everyone had thought was a spent rebel force, it added.

Some say that the VFA might well serve as the focal point of communist activity, since the presence of the U.S. bases beforehand led to the assassination of American soldiers around the facilities.

Still, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard says he is confident that military exercises between the Philippine and U.S. troops will be carried out as scheduled, in spite of threats by the NPA to attack American personnel.

Church groups add that, although not on the scale of the eighties, the conflict continues to produce civilian casualties.Bishop Ernesto Salgado, who chairs the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP), says Filipino children are often helpless victims in the conflict.

According to the United Nations International Children's Fund(UNICEF), the victimization of children is increasingly rampant,with NPA activity spreading to tribal areas.

Now, politicians are urging government negotiators to talk instead to the breakaway factions of the NDF, wracked by splits that emerged with different approaches to the Philippines'problems.

The local leftist movement was not immune to the ideological questioning that occurred among similar movements around the world, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changes in Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

Philippine governments have so far limited themselves to dealing with the NDF, but Senator Rodolfo Biazon said that the group's pullout would provide another mechanism that would allow recovery of the rebels who would like to return to the folds oft he law.

Said Sen Franklin Drilon: We cannot allow a few communists living abroad to dictate whether the Filipino people should liven peace or remain constantly exposed to the horrors of war.