The Philippines' Long Road to Peace

Commentary | September 28, 2010

The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility lists 36 media killings in 2009, when the Maguindanao Massacre occurred. This year, four cases of media killings have been recorded. Over 1,000 cases of extrajudicial killings were recorded under the Arroyo administration. Barely a hundred days into the recently installed Aquino administration, seven activists have been killed. Activists and militants, as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, attribute this to the government’s counter insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch), a policy that remains in place to date.

Indeed, the prospects for peace and security in the Philippines and the Asia Pacific are, to say the least, unpromising. Social injustice remains the biggest obstacle to peace and security in the Philippines. We are a backward agricultural economy that, to date, has failed to concretely recognize in practice the right of tillers to own the land. 70% of the Philippines’ peasants do not own the land they till. Some 10,000 farmers working the land owned by the king of the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III, are in the middle of a legal battle to lay claim to the land. At least 2.7 million Filipinos are unemployed, while those who managed to find work remain among the lowest paid workers in the region, deprived of job security and benefits. 

Poverty remains high and the rich-poor gap continues to widen. According to the Forbes Asia list, the net worth of just the twenty richest Filipinos reached $20.4 billion, an amount that is roughly the equivalent to the combined income of around 12 million Filipino families. Efforts of previous administrations to court multinational companies and other investors with the hopes of bringing in employment and boosting the economy have not had much impact on the poorest communities. In the first quarter of 2010, the Philippine economy posted an impressive 7.3% growth, which was attributed to an increase in remittances from overseas Filipino workers and election-related spending. But the supposed growth in the economy trumpeted by the government has not trickled down to the impoverished sectors. This has not translated to improved services for health and education; it has not translated to socialized housing, higher wages or improved benefits, or to an improved, modernized agriculture.  

This situation of immense poverty and social injustice is a situation that inevitably breeds conflict. As a matter of fact, the most war-torn areas in the Philippines, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is the most impoverished region in the country. Poverty incidence in ARMM is at 56%, a far cry from the national poverty incidence level of 32%. The region is also home to tens of thousands of evacuees who have been forced to leave their communities as a result of armed conflict and intensified militarization. Armed groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as well as the New People’s Army which led three decades of rebellion, persist in the far-flung rural communities of Mindanao. 

Intervention from countries like the United States has not helped at all in the peace process with both the MILF and the National Democratic Front. In 2008, the US government has managed to encroach in Mindanao communities and manipulate a supposed peace agenda and a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with Congress-funded organizations like the US Institute of Peace. An assured protection of US interests in the mineral rich lands of Mindanao was part of the deal. The MOA-AD was later deemed unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court. 

On the other hand, peace negotiations with the NDFP conducted with previous administrations have been bogged down repeatedly. While a Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law was achieved during the administration of former President Fidel Ramos, the succeeding governments of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo did not recognize this landmark agreement. Both governments adapted an all out war policy in compliance with the US Counter Insurgency Guide which instructs governments to disarm, dismantle and reintegrate revolutionary forces instead of addressing the root causes of conflict.

Several moves have been initiated by parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and church organizations as well as local government units towards the resumption of peace talks. This year, the Philippines became the 17th country to adopt a national action plan for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 which emphasized the need for governments to specifically address the impact of war on women and girls and recognize women's contributions to conflict prevention. It also emphasized the need to support local women’s peace initiatives and indigenous processes for conflict resolution. 

Peace negotiations with the three month old Aquino administration have yet to begin but barely 100 days into the Aquino presidency the prospects are dim. In President Aquino’s first state of the nation address, preconditions have been set for the resumption of talks and revolutionary groups like the NDFP see these preconditions as moves towards bringing revolutionary movements to capitulation. Philippine parliamentarians have, in various venues brought forth the issue of peace and security in the country. Legislation is being proposed and laws like the Anti-Torture Law have been passed to help address issues of peace and security in the country.  International bodies like the United Nations as well as the Inter Parliamentary Union have been very helpful in compelling the Philippine government to take action against extra judicial killings, political persecution and human rights violations. Many sectors are looking forward to the immediate resumption of peace negotiations, and towards the implementation of concrete measures that will put in place comprehensive social and economic reforms.

For indeed, the road to peace goes far beyond negotiations and talks. It goes beyond the passage of legislation and the campaign and intervention of independent bodies and international human rights organizations. A people will know no peace in the midst of poverty, injustice and aggression.

Rep. Luzviminda C. Ilagan, Representative to the 15th Congress, Gabriela Women’s Partylist