Duterte’s odd road to peace

Peace with the communists has evaded successive administrations. Source: YouTube

Not content to unleash the mass slaughter of any Filipino with an alleged link to the drugs trade, the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, is simultaneously opening peace talks with two parallel, previously intractable insurgencies.

He was categorised as a dangerous clown or a Donald Trump who might actually win while on the campaign trail. His “jokes” about prison gang rape and murder or his comments about taking back Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea on a jet ski alarmed many observers.

And Duterte stayed true to promises to leave Manila Bay chocked with corpses as thousands have been butchered in state-sponsored vigilante murder.

But the 71-year-old is already showing more flexibility than his predecessors in dealing with two of Asean’s most stubborn twin conflicts: the communist rebellion and the Islamist separatist movement in Mindanao.

It is hoped that his years as mayor of Davao in Mindanao, which was once crime-ridden but rejuvenated under Duterte’s heavy hand, has given him priceless contacts with the rebels that could end the decades of bloodshed.

Meanwhile, communist insurgents in the Philippines’ forests have been engaged in one of Asia’s most prolonged conflicts. Although less bloody and with fewer members than the Islamist separatists, the left-wing rebels have held out against repeated military and police offensives, relying on hidden units to pass orders from exiled commanders.

Duterte has made peace with the rebels one of his many priorities and talks set up by Norway opened in Oslo this month.

The rebels date back to communist militants who fought the Japanese occupation forces during the Second World War but after Japan and then the US withdrew, the communists were politically sidelined and armed rebellion was crushed. But in 1968, the Communist Party of the Philippines was re-established on Mao Zedong’s birthday, saying it wanted to create, a “protracted people’s struggle” modelled on China.

The rebel ranks swelled after tyrant Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and an armed wing, the New People’s Army, moved into forests camps and carried out raids on the authorities, agricultural and mining estates and on US forces, which maintained vast bases until 1991.

About 150,000 combatants and civilians have been killed, with recruits largely coming from those unhappy with yawning inequality and ongoing US influence. Rural areas affected by the conflict remain crushingly poor.

The communists boycotted the 1986 election, which was called by Marcos and so dismissed as a sham by the Maoists. Marcos fixed the result, leading to the overthrow of his kleptocratic regime in the “people’s power” revolt and restoration of democracy. The next president, Corazon Aquino, freed communist founder, Jose Maria Sison, and held peace talks. However, Sison fled to the Netherlands and the peace talks collapsed. Then in 1987, the communists murdered three US service personnel in separate attacks near US-controlled Clark Air Base. In 1989, they killed American Colonel James Rowe, who was training domestic counterinsurgency forces.

By the early 1990s, the rebels split in a deadly purge that left hundreds dead, further weakening the movement, whose numbers fell from a maximum of around 25,000 to a few thousand. Today’s communists survive on “revolutionary taxes”, which involve extorting money from traders and blowing them up if they refuse. Manila says the Maoists are now just kidnappers and mercenaries and a bankrupt ideological force.

Peace talks restarted in 1995 and again in 2001, only to break down when western governments put the group on a terrorist organisation.

Under the last president, Benigno Aquino, talks ended when he refused to release captured militants who were due to serve as peace negotiators. Duterte, however, has already agreed for rebels to be involved in peace talks to be freed, and appointed two allies of the communists to his cabinet.

This month Duterte also tried to resolve the Muslim insurgency in the south, which has claimed around 100,00 lives. Negotiators said they were meeting in Kuala Lumpur to discuss “Duterte’s peace road map”.

“They will discuss the road map to clarify certain issues. But let me warn everyone, it is not an easy task. It is very complicated,” said Jesus Dureza, presidential peace adviser.

The 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been demanding autonomy in the mainly Muslim south since the 1970s. An accord signed in 2014 had raised hopes of a peace with promise of a self-governing entity in Mindanao under an increasingly federal system.

A regional government was due to be elected during the May general election but a failed raid into MILF territory that left 44 police commandos dead last year scuppered the peace process.

MILF commander Murad Ebrahim said he welcomed fellow Muslim rebel Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to join the transition commission to set up the so-called Bangsamoro autonomous region.

“For the inclusion of brother Nur Misuari, the MILF welcomes him joining because we believe there has to be inclusivity in finding a solution to the problem in the Bangsamoro homeland. We need all the players to be onboard,” Murad said.

Ebrahim said a genuine peace process would stop the inroads Islamic State fundamentalists appeared to making in Mindanao. While the grinding poverty and instability caused by decades of conflict has made fertile ground for Islamists, it also true that a reliable peace deal could take away civilian support from the insurgency.

If Duterte can establish a peace dividend and go some way towards solving the conflict on the Philippines’ second-largest island, it will be the crowning achievement of his presidency.