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Last Updated: 09/04/2009New People's Army and the Philippines: No end in sight?
Noriko Hashimoto discusses the prolonged conflict between the government of the Philippines and the communist rebel group, New People's Army. After giving an overview of the long and tragic history, focusing primarily on the presidencies of Ramos and Arroyo, Hashimoto looks to the underlying factors of poverty and land distribution, and the potential for a negotiated peace.
40 years of conflict between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and New People's Army (NPA), a communist rebel group, is still continuing. According to news reports from Reuters, some 40,000 people have been killed by this conflict since the foundation of NPA in 1969 (2008). NPA is the military sector of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP),which is based on Maoist philosophy and practices, has been attempting to achieve a 쳌gnew democracy쳌h by conducting 쳌gpeople쳌fs war쳌h (guerrilla war). They have been spreading nationwide and are currently active in 69 of 81 provinces (Reuters 2008). GRP has been carrying out effort for peace, by initiating a peace process. On the other hand, GRP has been shifting their policies toward rebels, including NPA. Unfortunately, the Philippines has not seen any improvements to the issue which was pointed out by rebels: the expanding gap between rich and poor. Accordingly, GRP lost NPA's trust, and the peace process had made little progress.
As NPA, and the communist parties that NPA originated from have a long history, which had started before World War II, this paper focuses on the period of the former president Fidel Valdez Ramos and the current president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo쳌fs administration. Although it is short-term observation, this period demonstrates the pattern of government policy toward NPA. While former president Ramos actively engaged in peace talks with rebels throughout his presidency, President Arroyo쳌fs commitment to the peace process changed after the events of September 11th 2001, and has been inconsistent.
Challenges to the peace process have come not only from the GRP side, however, but also from the NPA side. This paper is an investigation of the key challenges to the peace process between GRP and NPA in the era of the former president Ramos and the president Arroyo. These challenges are: the fact that GRP is considered untrustworthy by NPA; the interests of foreign powers, which pressured GRP not to negotiate with communist 쳌gterrorists쳌h; and NPA쳌fs structure, psychological pattern, and philosophy.
1쳌DBackground of the conflict between GRP and NPA/CPP from before WWII until president Aquino
A good place to start is to trace the history of this conflict because it shows what kinds of memories GRP and NPA have. As far back as 1930, before WWII, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines; PKP), which is origin of CPP, was formed. The driving force behind rising communist parties was the increasing poverty among peasants and labors, and the parallel increase of wealth among landowners who received benefits during Spanish and American colonial time. Soon after foundation of PKP, in 1932, it was delegitimized and leaders were arrested by the government. However, it was legalized again in 1937.
During WWII, guerrilla groups were based on peasant쳌fs resistance against imperial Japan. Armed group called Hukbalahap (Huks), had formed under PKP and had fought throughout the War against Japanese occupation. It had been seen that Huks and U.S. army worked with coalition to defeat Japan. After the War, leaders of Huks were elected in a national election but conservative landlords deprived their legislative seats receiving a boost from U.S. because U.S. was hostile towards communism and landlords feared to be violated their right of their lands by communists. The government had quelled them because of the pressure from the United States. By the mid-1950s they were completely suppressed, which meant the end of the first period of communist activism.
With increasing tension of mass movement in the background of Vietnam War, José María Sison, one of leaders of PKP, left his group because of its pro-Soviet Union ideology. Based on Maoism, CPP was founded and New People쳌fs Army (NPA) was founded as a military sector of CPP. NPA is of the school of Huks, and the commander Dante of Huks became a founding member. Since 1972, during the Martial Law of Marcos administration, NPA had been damaged and their leaders had been arrested one after another, nevertheless in the 1980s they were at the peak of their history, News resources said there were an estimated 25.800 NPA soldiers (REUTERS, INQUIRE, 2008). At this time, NPA and CPP founded the National Democratic Front (NDF) which supports both NPA and CPP and they elevated their rhetoric toward GRP. Despite former president Aquino쳌fs effort toward the national reconciliation after the Marcos dictatorship, the peace process was broken by the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP). Although Aquino쳌fs presidency had won the democracy from Marcos, it was a patched-together government and was not strong enough to complete the democratic transition. In fact, during Aquino, attempted military coups were reported several times. The peace process would have to wait until Ramos쳌f presidency to develop further.
There are many factors which are disrupting to the peace process in the Philippines. Some of the most important factors are: the fact that GRP is considered untrustworthy by NPA because of their inconsistent policies and human rights violations; the interests of foreign powers, which pressured GRP not to negotiate with communist 쳌gterrorists쳌h; and NPA쳌fs structure, psychological pattern, and Maoist philosophy. These issues make it difficult for the parties to this conflict to negotiate with each other.
2-1. Inconsistent Policy of GRP toward NPA
The pattern of shifting government쳌fs policy has had a big impact on NPA, and makes confidence-building difficult. While the cabinet changes every presidential election, rebel groups rarely change their structure of organization and the leaders therefore maintain longer memory. NPA tends to think that a peace agreement will break down soon.
2-1-1. Peace effort during Ramos presidency; 1992-1998
To resolve armed conflict always become a major political issue each cabinet because it create significant obstacles to economic progress. Economic policies that the successive presidents of the Philippines were same, especially the era of the former president Ramos was the Philippines was left behind other ASEAN countries. So it was absolute must and Ramos aimed to join NIEs until 2000. He attracted foreign companies to the economic district. His series of economic policies and peace process brought about substantial results, which made peace process successful.
Ramos presidency had started set of economic policy, in parallel yielded breakthrough in relations between GRP and NDF which was representative of CPP and NPA. Ramos쳌fs effort for peace started from 쳌gThe Hague Joint Declaration쳌h September 1992, which happed soon after his assumption of the presidency. This Declaration confirmed both parties쳌f willingness for series of peace talks and negotiation to resolve armed conflict. Both parties had been building mutual trust through continued negotiation. From 쳌gThe Hague Joint Declaration쳌h, Series of official and unofficial peace talk and negotiation at the mediation of Norway government reached a framework, CARHRIHL (comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines) that had been signed by both parties in 1998. As long as no ceasefire agreement, CARHRIHL was consider not only as a regal document for human rights violation, but also as a way to build the confidence between both parties (Amnesty International Report 2007). These processes reined in violence, number of killing people by the battle between GRP and NPA during Ramos administration was diminished; GRP 2 and NPA 2 people were reported, compared to before and after Ramos presidency. According to the Philippines Human Development Report 2005, 735 government soldiers were killed in battles with rebels during Aquino쳌fs presidency, while NPA lost 858 people. Although statistics should not be trusted completely, these numbers should be carefully considered, as they show much fewer deaths under Ramos.
According to The Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Philippines, the Era of Ramos쳌f presidency % after 1994. This economic improvement must have had some effect on the number of battles. According to research by National Statistic Coordination Board, the GINI coefficient had been declining from 0.4881 to 0.4814 for 3 years, from 1997 to 2000, which statistic shows that the society moved toward more equal income distribution. However, economic development is not necessarily the case to resolve issue that rebel쳌fs claim, improvement of poor in provinces. For rural poor, it may cause an increase in relative deprivation.
2-1-2. Peace effort of the President Arroyo; 2001-2007
Soon after taking office, President Arroyo restarted the peace process which was stuck during the era of the former president Estrada. Her early work was to reaffirm the GRP쳌fs policy on the peace process, as the Ramos administration had done. On March 9th 2001, both parties had reached 쳌gjoint statement쳌h which confirmed resumption of official negotiation two years after from its termination. Subsequently, a month after, April 27 to 30, both parties had conducted a working session in Oslo, Norway (Brillantes 2007 p 15-17). However, since last working session April 2001, negotiation had stopped. Resuming peace talks had to wait until January 2004. BBC News reported that the NPA negotiators were less optimistic and said: 쳌gWe'd be lucky to complete 50% of the talks... but to finish it would not be possible,쳌h (BBC News,10 February, 2004). This interview was before the 쳌gOslo Joint Statements쳌h, held February 14 2004. From this comment, there is an assumption: NPA showed their gesture that GRP is trustworthy using mass media. Even BBC News didn쳌ft mention about their intention from this comment, it implied that comments to media can be used as a strategy to shoulder a burden to GRP before starting bargaining for NPA쳌fs advantage. In the same year, finally JOINT MONITORING COMMITTEE, was agreed in CARHRIHL, had formed in 2004. Perhaps GRP쳌fs gesture to show their response to NPA was late.
There is a question, why period of absence of peace talk had continued almost for 2 years. Reason of it is the pressure from foreign countries. The Philippines쳌f policy of foreign diplomacy is affecting the peace process, especially their relationship with U.S. The Philippines is considered a 쳌gfront line state쳌h of U.S.-led international fight against terrorism. In April 2001, Arroyo administration had restarted peace process in Oslo, Norway. However, after September 11 2001, GRP had changed their policy toward NPA, and implemented 쳌gOplan Bantaly Laya쳌h (Operation Freedom Watch) which is an armed operation to counter the rebels (Human Rights Now, 2007 p8). Also GRP had been ignoring the fact that U.S. department of state placed the name of NPA in the Foreign Terrorist Organization Designations Table in 2002. European Union (EU) also had placed names of NPA and Sison on the list which designated them as terrorists. In addition, the Bush administration decided to provide $65 million US to the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP) in the 2003 (Lum, Niksch 2006 p19). These series of events seriously affected NPA쳌fs confidence in their relationship with the government. Arroyo쳌fs presidency imposed a state of emergency nationwide in January 2006, next year continuously 쳌gTEN-POINT AGENDA TO 쳌eBEAT THE ODDS쳌f IN SIX YEARS UNDER THE ARROYO ADMINISTARATION쳌h was declared, which is a political statement that President Arroyo쳌fs presidency will terminate NPA conflict within 6 years, which made GRP쳌fs policy toward NPA unclear.
2-2. Human rights violations
Since 2001, more than 800 people are reported to have been victims of extrajudicial killing, and several people were disappeared (Amnesty International 2008). These people are activists, politicians, social/ NGO workers and journalists, who are suspected to relation of NPA or communists rebel groups. It has been happening for a long time but these cases have been increasing since 2001, when Arroyo administration started. GRP denies any relation between PNA (Philippines National Army) and PNP (Philippines National Police) and this series of killing, saying that these cases were from 쳌gpurges쳌h or the internal factional struggle of rebels. However, according to reports of Amnesty International, safe-conduct agreement of CARHRIHL, included list of individual member쳌fs name and address of CPP/NPA and other related organizations, promised their safety, turned to an arrest warrant. It is highly suspected that PNA, PNP, hired assassins, ex-NPA combatants, and vigilantes used that information when they committed extrajudicial killings. In addition, vigilantes were established unofficially by PNA (not under control of PNA, and prohibited in 1987. But, they still exist and are influenced and supported by high rank government officials that show a tough stand against communist rebels. There is really very little chance that these vigilante or paramilitary killings will be punished. The number of missing or killed people has not decreased yet.
Certainly, these killings cannot stop NPA쳌fs violence, but in some sense could increase it, as the government losses legitimacy. President Arroyo disavowed any involvement and cannot provide any effective way to solve this issue expeditiously. Although details of how the GRP and the group of people who killed cannot be found, at the very least, it is clear that the GRP cannot control them. These facts are enough to suspect GRP, and unhinge NPA쳌fs trust in GRP, and continue their violent struggle.
2-3. Impact of poverty
Impact of poverty is caused by government policy, which has been emphasized by NPA. Since GRP had not implemented large scale land reform, poverty is still remaining especially among peasants of provinces. The structure that landlords dominate land has entrenched poverty in the country.
Although peasants sell harvest to earn hard cash, they have to sell them in lower place in the local market (Personal interview 2006). In some cases, peasants work longer hours for less money on plantations. Unfortunately this system supports to provide the export of primary commodity. The poorest segment of the population is immobilized.
Ramos presidency According to research by National Statistic Coordination Board, the GINI coefficient had been declining from 0.4881 to 0.4814 for 3 years, from 1997 to 2000, which statistic shows that the society moved toward more equal income distribution. This is recognized to be brought by Ramos쳌fs economic policy. However, does it mean that poverty in provinces is decreasing and people쳌fs life is improved? After WWII, GRP did not plutocracy , which formed the fixed society. Some soldiers of NPA claimed land reform in practical approach to GRP. There was a history that PKP received an amnesty and built a cooperative relation through Marcos쳌fs agricultural reform, but large scale of reform has not been seen. average of roughly % until Asia economic crisis in 1997.
2-4. Decentralized authority, structure of NPA
Decentralized authority which is a characteristic of organization, makes peace process difficult Absence of founder, Jose Maria Sison and other leaders in the Philippines accelerates decentralized. Since 1987, they obliged to live in exile in Netherland.As a Amnesty International reported that the way of collecting 쳌grevolution tax쳌h, NPA had been resorting violence to civilians who had been falling behind in their payment in provinces. NPA can not control all of members because they had already been segmentalized and fighting 쳌gown war쳌h. They are conducting workshop in communities of provinces but their interpretation of Maoism/ Marxism are different (Taden 2006). It means that there is no philosophy that can strongly support their action and solidarity. Decentralized authority also seems like their strategy to avoid to be captured by AFP. They learned from lesson of the 80s, AFP sent out many spies under Marcos administration. Because of that, they had been killing each other
2-5 Lack of confidence in peace process
Failure of process of confidence-building is highlighted. GRP lost NPAs trust because of changing policies toward NPA for long time, which gave an impact on NPA. Despite confidence-building needs long-time effort, pattern of shifting government쳌fs policy makes rebels impenetrable. Because the cabinet certainly changes every presidential election, however, rebel group rarely change their structure of organization and the leaders therefore these memories as an organization remain them. NPA tends to think that peace agreement will break soon. And this patterned thinking allows them to use as an excuse when NPA resort to violence.
2-6. Maoist principal
Ideology is one of the primary sources of this conflict, and one of the reasons why they are continuously fighting. It makes conflict complicated because member of rebel tends to stick it, and defines member쳌fs behaviors and attitude. Members are also expected to be who they are based on their principle. They are confirmed their identities from their violent action.
During Ramos administration, communist groups were legitimized, which encouraged them to participation of politics. It seemed like the success of the peace talks. However, revolutionaries loyal to Sison rose to fight for ideological identity, which stymied peace process. Rebel itself create spoilers on peace process. Inside group of people tended to emerge to argue going back to their 쳌gprincipal쳌h. To rebels, it is anything more than compromising because their goal is 쳌gnew democracy쳌h, centering on peasants, through revolution. In addition, violence inside NPA became a pressure to people who carry forward with negotiations. Even though Maoism adapted to the Philippines context and deformed its idea, NPA can never cease its violence. They called 쳌ggreat rectification쳌h as known as 쳌gpurge쳌h which is to oppress people to confess by conducting violence. This dehumanizing process exists, which becomes pressure inside NPA and members are expected to practice or follow it as well. NPA try to contain betrayers who agree with peace process.
When NPA started fight for GRP because of grievance. They fight for poverty and recognition, so they believe in these their series of actions for people. But ironically the public feeling toward NPA has been disengaging from people because they thought NPA fell to the level of a gang. NPA has been threatening people쳌fs lives by violent means. It seems like they are not really fighting for peasants anymore. They are fighting for fighting and struggling for struggling, which means the way to achieve their purpose become purpose itself. Without struggling, they cannot see their identities. It is not peculiar to NPA쳌fs case to fight to confirm their raison d쳌fêtre.
NPA has problems mainly inside their organization. As achieving revolutionary justice, members have been killing civilians until now by attacking public places or kidnapping civilians. But NPA has no power to completely stop them. Different interpretations justify their violent activities, but it is clear that the decentralized structure of the organization and their Maoist philosophies are major causes.
Throughout this analysis of the reasons that the peace process has been failing from both parities쳌f perspectives, the situation seems stalemate. Because not only GRP but also NPA face challenges from inside and outside, and these challenges are deep rooted.
Effort of conflict mitigation can be found in civil society. For instance, the case of Peace Zone in Naga city is the one of the good examples. However, most of these efforts are lead by NGOs. What this case of conflict needs is a strong ownership of GRP led mitigation. Although the conflict is deep rooted, as long as the GRP takes an initiative, like Ramos did, NPA goes back to the bargaining table. For a long time, unfortunately the Philippines has been considered geographically an important strategic location to U.S. If GRP cannot become immune from their influence, GRP has to find a new foreign diplomacy without military cooperation. It is easily imagined that countries which are closely allied with US have dilemma between what the U.S. wants and what the government wants to do domestically. If GRP will follow direction of U.S. and subdue a rebel army, this will probably create new rebel groups. Because problems such as poverty in rural areas and human rights violations still remain.
Land reform takes a long time because ownership of land is closely linked to a political power. And it needs enough budgets because it has to go through many processes to proceed carefully. Quite a lot of politicians, their background are the landowner. Reform means that their influence in the provinces will be taken by someone. Once a landlord owns their land, there is no reason to give up them and distribute them someone. According to some reports, GRP is gradually progressing towards agrarian reform and trying to reduce poverty in rural areas (Reyes 2002). But can these small and slow reforms expect to bring difference in rural area? Until when can people wait for benefits of these processes?
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Noriko Hashimoto holds an MA in International Peace Studies from the University for Peace.