THE 23-year-long civil war in the Philippines, ignored in the US media, is progressing toward possible resolution. Prodded by a citizen's movement for peace, the Philippine government has undertaken exploratory discussions with leadership of the National Democratic Front (NDF). Talks over the past year have been held in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Beginning in 1990, a process of consultations by popular groups, religious institutions, and progressive politicians forged a consensus for a peace agenda. Philippine President Corazon Aquino endorsed the recent negotiations, calling the 1990s a decade of peace. The negotiations mirror the recent process in El Salvador - leading to the end of that nation's long civil war.
In the Philippines, the communist-dominated NDF, and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), have fought for two decades against control of the Philippine economy by elites - reaching what seems a stalemate with government forces. Neither side sees an easy or quick victory.
Although outmatched numerically and in firepower, the NPA's estimated 15,000 combatants enjoy widespread political and logistical support from peasants and workers in a country where 70 percent of the population exists below the poverty line. But a series of tactical errors, particularly an urban assassination policy in the late 1980s, has cut into their support by the influential urban middle class.
Nonetheless, the government's inability to address the root causes of the country's vast problems has enabled the NDF's program of social and economic reform to remain a defining force.
The "total war" policy of the Philippine military, based on a cold-war anti-communist fervor, has been far from successful. Utilizing military sweeps, psy-war techniques, paramilitary groups, the military has arrested many underground leaders and routed secure guerrilla "base" areas.
However, it has failed to crush the insurgency. Instead, "total war" has led to further polarization, thousands of innocent civilian deaths, and over 1 million "internal refugees" since 1986.
The massive militarization drives increased economic destabilization in the countryside. The social and economic costs created by waves of "internal refugees," added to the over 2 million displaced by a series of natural disasters, now strain limited government resources. Contrary to provisions in the 1986 Philippine constitution which mandate that key social services get the highest budgetary priority, the lion's share goes to the military and debt servicing of the country's $30 billion foreign debt.
NON-GOVERNMENT, religious, and business organizations have called for an end to the fighting and a shift of resources to address the massive economic and social problems of the nation.
Though buoyed by progress, the Philippine peace movement is far from celebrating success. The Philippine military, which sabotaged efforts for peace negotiations in 1986, has been ominously quiet of late.
Increasingly politicized during the 23-year civil war and dependent upon generous US military aid, the Philippine military has built up feifdoms of power. Their ability to undermine or halt the peace talks is high. Military leaders have vested interests in maintaining the fighting.
The renewed efforts at peace occur at a time of changing US-Philippine relations - long defined by US cold-war interests. The Philippine Senate's rejection of the Military Bases Agreement on April 16, 1991, forced the US to reappraise ties to its former colony. Unable to get an extension under favorable terms, the US scheduled an "accelerated withdrawal" of US military personnel by the end of 1992. However, faced with the logistical requirements of implementing its assumed role as a global policeman, the
US is circumventing the Philippine Senate by resuming talks with the military under the auspices of the Mutual Defense Board. The US wants more access to the Cubi Point airfield on the Subic Naval Base complex.
In May the Philippines hold national elections for offices including president and the bicameral Congress. President Aquino is not running for reelection, opening up the possibility of a new president hostile to peace negotiations. Once held in secret, the peace talks are now being publicized to guarantee they are not ignored by the new president or Congress, and will not easily be undermined by the military.
Since the six-year Philippine-American war at the turn of the century, the US has mainly supported military or authoritarian solutions to internal problems in the Philippines. It is time to change the nature of the bilateral relationship. The Philippine military, tied closely to the US, must be told to stand aside from any interference. Washington must not play politics and strongly endorse an open, fair, and nonviolent election and publicly support the peace process.
Philippine democracy, imperfect as it may be, is unique in Southeast Asia. The US has a rare opportunity to support a genuine negotiated political settlement there and help shape new political relations in a nation long torn by human rights abuses and conflict.