HomeCommentaryDashed hopes for peace in the Philippines

Dashed hopes for peace in the Philippines

How did Pope Francis once describe his idea of peace?

He said that peace is “a great and precious value, the object of our hope and the aspiration of the entire human family.”

He explained that hope brings humanity on the path to peace, while “mistrust and fear … increase the risk of violence.” He urged the world to be artisans of peace, open to dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The stand of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines on the issue of peace adheres essentially to the pontiff’s views. On numerous occasions, it has urged the faithful “to remain steadfast in our common vocation and mission to actively work for peace.”

But today, those who still harbor the faint hope that the war raging in the Philippine countryside for more than 50 years between the government and the Maoist rebels will go away soon—or at least subside—are in for a big disappointment.

That’s because the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) recently announced that it would no longer extend a temporary ceasefire it had earlier declared until April 30 in response to the call of the United Nations for warring parties all over the world to observe a humanitarian pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The communist rebels accused the government forces of not respecting its ceasefire declaration after several skirmishes despite both parties vowing to stop hostilities to focus on solving the health problem.

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“The refusal of the Duterte regime to relent in its attacks against the NPA, despite calls for a ‘global ceasefire,’ has made the further extension of the NPA ceasefire impossible,” the CPP said in a statement.

“Since Duterte called for a ceasefire on March 16, AFP counterinsurgency operations remain unabated … ceaselessly conducting combat operations, aerial bombardments and artillery shelling, aerial surveillance and ground intelligence operations, arresting civilians, and violating people’s rights with impunity,” the statement added.

But that’s just one side of the story.

Ecumenical church leaders in the Philippines join activists in calling for the resumption of peace negotiations between the government and communist rebels during a forum in 2019. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

The other side is that President Rodrigo Duterte had been the first to declare a unilateral ceasefire soon after he announced a lockdown of the main island of Luzon due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CPP-NPA did not reciprocate the gesture. Instead, it declared its own unilateral ceasefire only after the UN urged combatants to suspend hostilities for humanitarian reasons.

Recently, Duterte lashed out at the CPP-NPA for attacking government forces even while the military observed its own ceasefire.

He also accused the rebels of confiscating relief goods intended for delivery to poor communities affected by the lockdown. He ended his latest tirade by warning that he would declare martial law if the NPA continued with its “lawlessness.”

It would appear that Duterte has really made up his mind not to entertain any idea of resuming peace talks with the rebels.

As things now stand, therefore, the nation can expect the fighting to escalate in areas where the rebels are believed to be operating.

All-out war between the government and the rebels is likely to displace innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. This would also lead to collateral damage as life in communities where there is intense fighting would have to grind to a halt, with food supplies disrupted and freedom of movement curtailed.

The rebels know fully well that they cannot win the war in the battlefield. First and foremost, they are up against an armed forces that’s superior both in terms of personnel and armaments. The government has ramped up spending for the military in line with its goal of modernizing its armed forces which is considered among the weakest in Southeast Asia. In fact, no part of the country cannot be reached by the military with their land, air and sea assets. A ragtag guerrilla army of a few thousands cannot stand a chance—militarily, that is—against an adversary that has 160,000 troops and well-equipped.

But that’s a rather simplistic view of the actual balance of forces in the country. The NPA capitalizes on widespread poverty and social injustice in the countryside to attract recruits to their cause. That’s why they have remained alive and kicking for more than half-a-century.

For the military to pour men and materiel to the countryside and launch a take-no-prisoners war would not only bring about allegations of human rights violations but also frighten investors needed to spur socio-economic growth in the countryside.

In other words, all-out war is an untenable situation for both sides.

Peace advocates are correct in pointing out, therefore, that political negotiations offer the best prospects for attaining the elusive goal of peace in the country.

The odds of peace talks between the Philippine government and communist-led rebels getting restarted may be nil at this point. But that doesn’t mean that the Church and other peace advocates should abandon what appears to be their quixotic crusade for the two sides to talk and attain a durable and lasting peace.

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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