MANILA PEACE UPDATE: BACK-CHANNEL TALK WITH MAOIST REBELS


Erle Frayne D. Argonza

 

[Writ 01 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila. The author, a professor at the premier University of the Philippines, was a former consultant and senior official at the presidential palace.]

 

Let me share to you some notes about the efficacy of the back-channel strategy as applied to the Peace Talks. By Peace Talks I refer to the on-going negotiations between the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and the rebel groups (National Democratic Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front). For this briefer, I will focus on the GRP-NDF talks, the NDF being the Maoist movement led by the clandestine Communist Party of the Philippines (founded 1968).

 

The Maoist rebellion here began as soon as the New People’s Army or NPA, the military arm of the CPP, was formed. The Philippines than was predominantly agrarian, landlordism was the main stumbling block to industrial progress, the 1948-launced Import Substitution Industrialization was floundering badly, and mass poverty must have been reaching as much as past the 75% mark. With an agrarian population as base, it wasn’t difficult for the CPP-NPA to justify an armed struggle based on the Maoist strategy of encirclement: build rebel based first in the hinterlands where the enemy forces are weak, then gradually constrict the urban areas (cities, big towns) from the countryside.

 

Almost four (4) decades after the launching of the Maoist rebellion, nowhere is there any site of a victory by the Left rebels. Supposedly, the guerilla fronts have reached past the 3-digit level (160+ as of latest claims by the CPP), but those are largely spread out in rural hinterlands. RP’s population is now around 60% urban and only 40% rural, and urbanization is still spreading fast, mutating the rural landscapes into new mixed-use urban and suburban mini-cities.

 

It is now getting clearer that the Maoist rebellion here has been reduced to a Zapatista-sized rebellion, and its strategy of encirclement has become obviously intractable and nauseatingly archaic. Unless that it shifts in strategy from rural-based armed struggle to urban-based mass movement type, the new Zapatistas of Manila (CPP-NDF) may lose enormous mileage in their campaigns and legitimacy. A rising middle class here will never be able to identify with a movement that tends to diminish the importance of the ‘middle sectors’ in shaping the political wind, most specially in Asia to which Manila is now closely hued to (for many centuries the Philippines was alien to Asia and was more hued to its colonial masters in the West).

 

Often than not, the Peace Talks get stalled. This has been the history of negotiations here. But at least what is clear, as has been shown by the past negotiations with the military rebels and the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF, is that the GRP talking point is not “surrender all of you or die!” but rather one of negotiated political settlement. It took much time for the GRP to admit to this new precept in peace talks, but state negotiators have to rather take this option as it had proved relatively successful as exemplified by the previous cases.

 

One strategy used by the GRP whenever peace talks get stalled is the ‘back-channel talk’. Often than not, the names of back-channel negotiators are not identified at all in public, or that the information is strictly confidential. Having once moved in the corridors of power as a consultant and later a senior state official at the presidential palace, my very own boss then was among them, and his experiences in the BCT (shortened ‘back-channel talk’) are my basis for assessing the efficacy of the strategy.

I found out, to my own dismay being a patriot who was impatient for results, that the peace talks get stalled every now and then not because of ‘insincerity’ of the ‘other party’ but rather due to the lack of trust by the rebels in the GRP negotiating panel’s composition. One must realize that here in Manila, the ‘nat-dems’ (the Maoist national democrats) had that historical animosities and antipathies with the ‘soc-dems’ (non-Maoist social democrats) who were indeed rabidly anti-communist as any observer would notice. Sadly, before the incumbent president GM Arroyo sat in power, the ‘soc-dems’ were already visible and influential in shaping the contours of peace talks including those held with the Muslim rebels.

 

In 2004, barely had the presidential election campaign commence when the peace talk stalled again. The usual bitter reason raised, as per information coming straight from the rebels to their contacts in the GRP other than the peace panel, was the ‘soc-dem’ presence in that (peace) panel (notably the intelligence top-gun Norberto Gonzales, and another ‘soc-dem’ cabinet member Ging Deles). Before that, in the 1990s, there was the complaint against the ‘opus dei’ negotiators. You see, the NDF can never really trust these negotiators who hinge their loyalty to their Vatican-led spin doctors.

 

The ‘nat-dem’ line is that the ‘soc-dem’ and their predecessors the ‘opus dei’ are clerico-fascist, are rabidly anti-communist and will never trust communists or Marxists of whatever rainbow hue they possess. The cleric-fascists supposedly opt for a total destruction of anything Marxist, much more of Maoists, and cannot be trusted in any way in peace negotiations. Of course, in the open mass media the typical line of the Maoists is that GRP is insincere, a line that the MILF rebels likewise echo.

 

That’s why it pays for any incoming president in particular to review the composition of the peace group that s/he inherits from a previous president. Well, the fact is that all the presidents from Corazon Aquino through Gloria Arroyo owe their victories in one way or another to the support of the ‘Jesuit mafia’ (to whom the ‘soc-dems’ owe allegiance) and the ‘opus dei’ (RP’s version of generalissimo Franco’s phalangists). So nary a president can just consign church players to roach-ridden dust bins, rest assured.  

 

A remedial measure adopted by a president here, which the incumbent particularly and that of the flamboyant Fidel Ramos found efficacious, was the use of BCT negotiators. And the result was even more stunningly successful whenever a BCT negotiator was a former comrade of the Left. Many senior-level officials since the 1990s yet, the rank going to as high as cabinet level, were former ‘nat-dems’ including dozens of former CPP cadres no less. They may have left the underground, but they were still in good faith with their former movements which they never antagonized in any way.

 

As the presidential poll got nearer in 2004, the BCT negotiator then, who is personally known to this writer, got himself busy moving in and out of the country to see the NDF officials face-to-face. There was this particular official session between the NDF and GRP, which the BCT negotiator witnessed, and to the shock of the attendants the NDF officials pulled out pronto even before the session even started. But the rebel officials never left the venue, they simply cuddled at a particular nook and discussed their moves right there.

 

As usual, among the GRP panelists were around three (3) ‘soc-dems’ and one ‘opus dei’, and so the knee-jerk Pavlovian response of the rebels was to back off, as if they perceive some hostile man-eating Martians across the bargaining table. Seeing the urgency of a mediation response, the BCT official immediately admonished the GRP panelists to stay and wait while he moves on to massage the rebel side. He then went over to his former comrades, muscled enough courage and confidence to deal witRih them, and pronounced his lines that fruitful things can come out of the session if only the rebels returned to the table.

 

Well, voila! The rebel officials did return to the table, though without a hint of trust shown to the GRP panelists. The panel wasn’t exactly an entirely ‘socdem’-‘opus dei’ tandem, as the BCT official had pointed to the rebels, and so it was a matter of competent communication of their positions that would matter the most at that historic moment.

 

I was myself very busy then with the presidential campaign, being a consultant and spokesman for the incumbent exec who was running for another 6-year stint when the talks resumed. And I was so exuberantly elated at the rebels’ return to the table. The BCT negotiator, being my direct boss in the campaign (he was also among the top coordinators for the ‘parallel campaign machinery’ of GM Arroyo), then narrated the series of events which never came out of the news.

 

Not only did the rebels return to the ‘nego’ table (nego = negotiations, negotiating) as a result of the success of confidence-building spawned thru the BCT strategy. A week before the presidential poll, the top rebel honcho Jose Maria Sison officially announced that the NDF was supporting the GMA-led team in the elections. ‘Joma’ (as Sison was fondly nick-named) even released a formal memorandum to all CPP cadres and members, to openly vote for Arroyo in her presidential bid.

 

We now have new faces among the GRP panelists here, and the political winds have quite changed since 2004. The GRP-NDF war had resumed, peace talks continue but without verve and mutual trust. But BCT had more than amply proved to be a worthwhile strategy for peace negotiations. We should all look forward to its further application in many cases of conflict resolution—from rebellion-related to labor-related conflicts (settling strikes, lock-outs, barricades).

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: development studies, peace, politics, sociology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: