01 July 2016: New Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has made overtures to armed groups who have spent years fighting the government. Rey Ty reports on the prospects for peace that his presidency might bring.

The Presidency in Filipino capital Manila will soon be occupied by Rodrigo Duterte. He made ending the country’s internal conflicts a key part of his manifesto for last month’s election. Image credit: Storm Crypt. The Presidency in Filipino capital Manila will soon be occupied by Rodrigo Duterte. He made ending the country’s internal conflicts a key part of his manifesto for last month’s election.
Image credit: Storm Crypt.

Duterte inherits deep-rooted structural problems in Philippine society
The Philippines went to the polls last month, with victory for President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. A self-professed leftist, he has called for dialogue with Communist and Muslim rebels.

Duterte inherits deep-rooted structural problems in Philippine society: feudalism, oligarchy, corruption, and foreign domination. The BBC has noted that “between 40% and 80% of Philippine legislators are connected to political dynasties with vested interests. A handful of the families control almost all of the country's wealth,” and that “25% of the population lives under the poverty line.”

Duterte is intent on stopping mass poverty, corruption, crime, and drugs. So are the communist revolutionaries. Hence, Duterte and the communists have common ground, the former struggling through evolutionary means, and the latter revolutionary.

The electorate – tired of the oligarchy and the old, inefficient ways of running the country – chose a tough-talking and action-oriented candidate to be the next President, hoping that he will produce structural change. Duterte plans to propose constitutional change to convert the Philippines into a federal system so that provinces will have powers to deal with social inequity and corruption locally.

Outgoing President Aquino focused on reaching a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which failed, as Congress did not enact it into law. Duterte plans to engage in peace talks with all the major Muslim rebel groups but also the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Personal connections in Filipino politics

Duterte and Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder and NDFP consultant Jose Ma. Sison have known each other for decades. Sison was Duterte’s professor. Both have good words for each other. Their widely publicised video chats are a positive sign that communication lines are open between the government and the NDFP. Each side has sent envoys to meet the other party.

Of all the social movements in the Philippines, only the NDFP has a well-defined and coherent social analysis and clear agenda for social change. Sison, using the nom de guerre Amado Guerrero, cites three root problems of Philippine society: feudalism, imperialism, and bureaucratic capitalism. The solutions to the problems include social liberation (national democracy and mass scientific culture), national liberation (genuine land reform and national industrialisation), and an end to corruption. In the transition, the NDFP calls for the establishment of a Democratic Coalition Government (DCG).

While Duterte appears to accept the social analysis of NDFP, there are many other reactionary, conservative, liberal, and progressive Philippine and foreign forces who are seeking to work in alliance with the Duterte administration. Hence, to maintain his balance of power, Duterte is walking a tightrope between maintaining the status quo and generating social change.

A track record for peace?

Duterte has offered four cabinet positions to the communist rebels
Working to attain peace in Davao City where he was mayor for 22 years, Duterte went to the rebel stronghold to hear their pleas, stressing: “I cannot seal my door. I need a window to talk to the CPP-NPA.” He was able to have working relations with the communist rebels, so much so that the New People’s Army (NPA) released prisoners of war, including police and military personnel, through Mayor Duterte. Duterte allowed a funeral march for slain NPA commander Leonardo Pitao, also known as Kumander Parago, and his medical aide Vanessa Limpag.

Campaign promises

To jump-start the peace talks, Duterte is considering releasing political prisoners as a gesture of confidence building. This is different from President Aquino, who ended talks with the NDFP in 2013 and refused to release political prisoners. Duterte agrees with the communist rebels that poverty and marginalisation are the root causes of the armed rebellion. Duterte labels himself as a socialist who is not in favour of the CPP’s armed struggle. He said he will focus on agriculture, health, education, as well as small and medium enterprises.

Duterte declared that Sison is welcome to return to the Philippines. Hence Sison is hopeful that he can end his exile in the Netherlands, seeing the possibility of a ceasefire.

Duterte has offered four cabinet positions to the communist rebels, in Agrarian Reform, Environment and Natural Resources, Social Work, and Labor. Luis Jalandoni (the chief peace negotiator of the rebels) and Sison have accepted.

Jalandoni and Sison assured the Duterte government that the rebels would recommend a list of “qualified, competent and dedicated persons” (not guerrilla personnel) who could fill the posts.

The Duterte and the NDFP camps are exchanging delegation visits “as part of the process for preparing the resumption of peace talks” and to fix the requirements to be laid down formally in the agreement. Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo said that talks have already started with “a courtesy call led by Fidel Agcaoili” who represents the NDFP.

Church leaders sing praises for Duterte’s peace panelists, while the Philippine National Police have welcomed Duterte’s talks, both of which are positive signs that civil society and the security forces agree that the time is ripe for peace.

The Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform is pleased with the arrangements for peace talks, and has expressed its “support and willingness” to follow the process.

Duterte is due to assume the presidency in July 2016. With the clock ticking, let us hope that Duterte’s first 100 days in office give peace a chance.

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