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Opinion

Costly, myopic approach to decades-long conflict

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

President Duterte, in his final State of the Nation Address last Monday, said that his administration has made “great strides” in addressing the root causes of the armed conflict with the Left revolutionary movement “by empowering our kababayans who have been used by the communists for so many decades.”

This was accomplished, he stressed, through the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) that he nominally heads. He explained how:

“We have worked towards the sustainable rehabilitation and development of communities where the communists used to operate. We invested in farm-to-market roads, school buildings, water and sanitation systems, health stations and livelihood projects.”

“Kasali na tayo dito lahat (We are all in this together),” he interjected in an ad-lib, referring to the NTF’s vaunted “whole-of-nation” counterinsurgency approach.

“Because of these interventions, more than 17,000 former communist rebels have surrendered to the government,” the President crowed. “They have returned to the fold of the law and are happily reintegrating into society through the E-CLIP (Enhanced-Comprehensive Local Integration Program.”

(The E-CLIP is a complete package of assistance to “Former Rebels or FRs” and their families  – members of the CPP, the NPA and NDFP “who voluntarily abandoned the armed struggle and opted to become productive members of the society,” per Administrative Order 10 dated May 17, 2018. It lists 17 benefits, including various cash handouts in tens of thousands of pesos per FR. In charge of E-CLIP is “Task Force Balik-Loob” composed of second-level officials of the DND, DILG, OPAPP, Office of the President, and the National Housing Authority.)

With the local governments’ backing, Duterte said he was confident that “support for the communist movement will continue to erode in the next few months.” Capping his spiel from a written speech, he declared: “And like the decades-old Moro rebellion in Mindanao, we will also bring an end to the armed struggle of the communists once and for all.”

Note: The Bangsamoro/MILF rebellion was ended through a comprehensive agreement in 2014 after protracted negotiations almost like those between the GRP and the NDFP. However, Duterte arbitrarily ended the latter in 2017 even as, per his negotiators, they were already making “unprecedented advances.”

From these pronouncements, one would get this idea: That for the Duterte government, “addressing the root causes of the armed conflict” could be reduced to “investing” in the projects that he cited, in communities previously influenced by the revolutionary movement. The administration doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s duty-bound to carry out those projects in all communities lacking the support for their day-to-day needs.

President Duterte did not categorically say his administration would end the armed conflict before the end of his term. In fact, he dovetailed his statement on ending the conflict “once and for all” with this ad-lib: “Speech-speech man lang ito. Kunwari lang, pero ang totoo there’s a lot of fighting going on in the countryside.”

Yesterday, The STAR reported that Duterte’s national security adviser and NTF-ELCAC vice chairperson, retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., affirmed the President’s statement about the barangay projects pursued by the task force.

“We most of all need the projects for the barangays, especially those that are depressed and disadvantaged… and those that are conflict-affected,” Esperon said. Then he added: “And this is the solution” for the protracted armed conflict.

The NTF-ELCAC version of “addressing the root causes of the armed conflict” is far, far off the original concept or intent – to deal with the deep-rooted problems that have propelled the armed struggle for so long. Theirs is a myopic, piecemeal approach in selected communities. It does not involve change-oriented policymaking and programming at the national level on perennial socio-economic and political ills. And it is costly to the public purse.

Worse, it has entailed a vicious campaign of national divisiveness: sustained widespread vilification of perceived “enemies of the state,” red- and terrorist-tagging that led to killings long before and after the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

To finance the projects in more than 800 barangays this year, under a Barangay Development Program, P16.4 billion has been allocated from the NTF’s P19.1-billion budget. For 2022, the latter asks for P40 billion. The bulk of the 2021 allocation will go to barangays in Mindanao: 215 in the Davao region; 191 in Caraga and 119 in Northern Mindanao.

The phrase, “addressing the root causes of the armed conflict,” originally came from the late president Corazon C. Aquino, when she called for peace talks with the revolutionary movement in 1986 and the NDFP reciprocated. The initial GRP-NDFP peace talks in 1986-87 began on that basis: To address and seek resolution to the historical social, economic and political inequities and injustices underlying the armed conflict.

Although the military sabotaged the initial talks, these took off under Fidel Ramos’ watch, taking up Mrs. Aquino’s mantra. Formal negotiations in 1995-98 produced 10 key procedural and substantive agreements, crowned by the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CAHRIHL).

As regards the target of ending the armed conflict within Duterte’s term, “he wants to finish the NPA by July 22,” Esperon said. But he’s as equivocal as his boss.

The STAR quoted him as saying last Tuesday: “In my estimate of their [NPA’s] current strength of about 3,500, I think it will go down. Many have been surrendering.” Yet, Esperon hastened to add that while the NTF-ELCAC is following a timeline, he also knows that “there would still be some NPA supporters and several issues to be solved by the next administration.”

The armed conflict will not end under the Duterte government.

And the prospect of continuing the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations, by earnestly addressing the root causes of the conflict, will depend largely on two factors: how the Supreme Court will rule on the 37 petitions against the Anti-Terrrorism Act and the election of a new president in May 2022 who will uphold Cory Aquino’s mantra.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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