Philippine Rebels Join Peace Talks

The fading power of Filipino insurgent groups gives Manila an opportune moment for outreach

AFTER almost five months of work, a commission appointed by Philippine President Fidel Ramos has convinced most of this country's many insurgent groups, some of them a century old, to talk peace. Yet the commission's success may be the product of disorganization and low morale in the insurgencies and some analysts suggest that Mr. Ramos is just in the right place at the right time.

Bringing stability to the Philippines is a tricky business. Four umbrella groups with vastly different ideologies have been fighting the government in Manila, some since the 1986 revolution and others since the 19th century (See box below). Factions within groups are fighting each other, weakening their organizations and making negotiations all the more complex.

The nine-member National Unification Commission (NUC), created by Ramos in September, is charged with forging a framework for peace negotiations and recommending to Ramos, by March, the conditions of a general amnesty.

"We are talking to everyone who cares to talk with us," says NUC head Haydee Yorac, a lawyer and former government election commissioner in 1992. She adds that NUC is not a negotiating panel. "Our powers are mostly moral."

"Armed groups who challenge the government have a very strong sense of dignity," Ms. Yorac says. "I have assured everyone they will come out with honor and dignity intact."

The four insurgent groupings are: three rebel soldier factions; a faction of soldiers loyal to former President Ferdinand Marcos; four communist factions; and two Muslim separatist groups.

But Ramos's attempt to take credit for the renewed peace effort "is like dancing a rain dance when it's about to rain anyway," says one American political analyst.

No new incentives have been added to the process since peace talks opened under former President Corazon Aquino, he adds. "In the last analysis there are three options [for the rebels]: Take the best offer from Ramos; refuse to cooperate and maintain status quo; or negotiate and break off, which leaves you nowhere."

Others are more enthusiastic about the peace process.

"Although the commission may not achieve a complete cessation of hostilities, they have already and will improve the chances of stability," a Western diplomat says.

The diplomat predicts the commission will succeed with the Muslims and with the rebel soldiers, who are receptive to the commission's use of face-saving tactics, which would help them disband groups that are losing influence anyway.

And while "it is harder to imagine the communists compromising," the diplomat adds, "the process has exposed serious internal problems and will fuel an internal rethinking of their movement."

The NUC confront a variety of insurgent demands: Rebel soldiers want broad reforms aimed at achieving "social justice"; Marcos loyalists want his body repatriated from Hawaii and buried with military honors; Muslims want greater autonomy; and the communists seek basic social, political, and economic reforms.

Initially, the NUC had positive responses from all groups. Rebel soldier leaders came out of hiding to sign an agreement and submitted talking points on Jan. 11. A leading Marcos loyalist "turned himself in" to work with the NUC. The Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), has agreed to hold talks in Jakarta, but the NUC has not commented on this proposal. And the NUC has been in contact with the communists since late last year. Much to get done

There is a lot of ground to cover. Political observers question whether agreements signed by factions will bind entire groups. And analysts note that disenfranchised factions could deteriorate into armed gangs.

The United States government is supportive of the peace process, US Ambassador Richard Solomon says, but has expressed concern over a possible amnesty for communists convicted in the 1989 murder of US Col. James Rowe, a military attache involved in US-Philippine training programs.

There is also opposition to Ramos's rumored plan to reinstate military rebels in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

"The truce agreement [with rebel soldiers] and mass release of felonious officers means one thing: The Ramos government is not a real government because real governments punish mutinies," the Philippines Daily Globe said in a recent editorial.

"Many [rebel soldiers] will return to the AFP and wait for the Ramos administration to commit mistakes," says Julius Fortuna, a political observer. "Then they can strike again when the situation is ripe."

Arguably, the most potent group of insurgents are soldiers responsible for six unsuccessful coup attempts aimed at toppling Mrs. Aquino, whose election in 1986 forced Marcos into exile.

These soldiers originally rallied around reforming the AFP, but as they grew disappointed with Aquino, their crusade broadened to reforming the country.

But the NUC peace process has had its most dramatic effect on the communist movement. Ramos managed to expose communist infighting when he formed the NUC and legalized the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in September, and released ranking communists from jail in the last year.

Leftist intellectuals have grown disenchanted with the CPP's doctrine of armed struggle since the 1986 ouster of Marcos and the more recent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Membership in the New People's Army (NPA), the CPP's armed wing, has dwindled from 25,000 in 1988 to about 13,000. Brutal purges of party members suspected of being military informers resulted in hundreds of deaths, the party admits. A wave of paranoia has since driven a wedge between the rank and file and their ideological leaders, several of whom live in exile in the Netherlands. Return to Maoist roots

Exiled CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, who was reelected chairman at a poorly attended central committee meeting in September, wants the party to return to its Maoist roots. He has endorsed an agreement to work with the NUC, but he is thought to be committed to armed struggle.

In Manila, communist spokesman Saturnino Ocampo says his quarrel with the government is over technical economic issues. He favors eventual disarmament.

While the NUC is currently dealing with Mr. Sison, it is possible Mr. Ocampo or other regional leaders in the Philippines may be consulted. Some analysts believe the less the NUC deals with central party leadership, the greater the chance for peace.

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