Manila, Philippines – Fighting continues between the Philippine military and communist rebels despite an agreement to resume peace talks this month in an effort to end the world’s longest-running communist armed rebellion.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr surprised many when, in November, his government announced an agreement with the National Democratic Front (NDF), the rebels’ political wing, to restart peace talks that his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte had ended shortly after taking office.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
In the agreement, signed in Oslo after months of secret negotiations facilitated by the Norwegian government, both parties acknowledged “the deep-rooted socioeconomic and political grievances” at the heart of the conflict and agreed to seek reforms.
Since then, however, contradictory statements, public bickering and continued armed clashes between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA), the communist party’s armed wing, have tarnished hopes of an agreement.
Many in the military apparatus – and especially within the government’s controversial anti-communist task force – still want to “finish off the armed conflict by physically wiping out the [NPA] forces,” Satur Ocampo, founder of the leftist Bayan Muna party-list group, told Al Jazeera.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said late last year it remained focused on “waging extensive and intensive guerrilla warfare” and rebuilding NPA forces.
The Philippine government was “very perplexed and disappointed” by the statement, National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Malaya told reporters last month.
However, the military has also continued armed operations against the NPA, including December air strikes on the southern island of Mindanao that killed nine alleged rebels.
Roadblocks to peace
The Philippine government and NPA have been engaged for more than 50 years in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people. It peaked in the 1980s, during the martial law rule of Marcos’s father, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Over the years, there have been repeated announcements of peace talks, which have then collapsed.
Marcos Jr’s surprise move to reopen negotiations dovetails with the military’s stated ambition to switch its focus from domestic conflict to “external or territorial defence”, military chief Romeo Brawner Jr told reporters in November.
The Philippines has shifted closer to the United States due to a series of conflicts with Chinese vessels in the disputed South China Sea, which is claimed almost in its entirety by Beijing despite an international tribunal ruling against it in 2016.
Marcos initially opposed peace talks when he took office in June 2022. However, he may be growing weary after witnessing a “resurgence in armed fighting” in areas the military has claimed to have cleared, Ocampo said.
“[Marcos] may be doubting the assurance of security forces that they can finish off the CPP-NPA within his term,” which ends in 2028, Ocampo said. “He’s opening up the option of seeking a negotiated settlement.” Under Philippine law, presidents can serve only one term in office.
The November communique drew optimism partly because of its use of explicit language committing both parties to seek “socioeconomic and political reforms towards a just and lasting peace”.
Numerous attempts at agrarian land reform in the Philippines have failed since the 1980s, leaving many rural farmers destitute and landless while families retain oligarchic control of land passed down from the colonial rule of Spain and the US.
However, disagreement quickly emerged on how to institute reforms.
The NDF wanted to reintroduce an agreement to distribute land forged during Duterte-era talks.
But the office of presidential peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr, which is leading negotiations, insisted the talks were “new” and a “restart”, raising concern within the NDF that he wanted to toss aside past agreements.
Instead, Galvez has pitched “specific programmes that can be handled by the government and big business”, Ocampo said. “There’s nothing that touches on deep socioeconomic reforms.”
National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano has also opposed removing the CPP-NPA from the country’s list of “terrorist” organisations, along with freeing currently jailed peace negotiators – positions which appear to be nonstarters for the communist side.
“It is critical that Marcos rescind earlier proclamations … designating the NDF as terrorists,” a CPP spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “However, Marcos’s officials … have repeatedly expressed resistance to these measures.”
Julie de Lima, interim chairperson of the NDF negotiating panel, told Al Jazeera her group was negotiating for the release of consultants needed to forge [promised] agreements on socioeconomic reforms.
“It will be very difficult without that,” she said. “We still have this guarded optimism that these talks may proceed, [but] there are issues that must be resolved.”
Last month, Marcos claimed there were no remaining active NPA fronts as of December. The government says fewer than 1,500 NPA rebels remain, although the CPP and NPA say the number is higher.
The CPP spokesperson told Al Jazeera that neither side was currently seeking a joint ceasefire.
De Lima, the NDF negotiator, said her panel has not been approached by the government since the November communique, and that it is “disheartening” that the peace office led by Galvez had chosen to “negotiate publicly”, referencing the secretary’s plans to collaborate with major businesses to provide socioeconomic reforms.
Galvez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Both sides are still not trusting each other,” said Georgi Engelbrecht, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, who noted that many observers are “cautious” rather than optimistic.
“But the fact we are at this stage is already progress,” he said. “Now, both sides need to show their commitment and genuine intentions.”
The first step is setting an agenda, and finding realistic goals to work towards, before any talk of a ceasefire or of freeing the NDF’s negotiators, said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a peace negotiator who led the government’s efforts to sign a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front a decade ago.
There is still plenty of motivation on both sides. Communist forces have been affected by worsening climate disasters, such as typhoons that have pummelled the northern province of Cagayan in recent years and led to record floods.
Coronel-Ferrer believes the NPA has started to realise disasters make it harder to continue operations and gain local support in rural mountain strongholds. “You’re up in the mountains, there’s a landslide, there’s nothing to eat for the whole community,” she said.
The government also must assuage fears that its controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in 2020, might still be used to target current or former communist rebels, Coronel-Ferrer added.
In recent months, its anti-communist task force has allegedly collaborated with the Philippine military to kidnap activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, who told Al Jazeera they were forced to falsely surrender as communist rebels.
It may come down to which voices in government and the military are most persistent. Marcos “might be more swayed by the louder voices” who are currently those calling for an end to the conflict, Coronel-Ferrer said. “He doesn’t want to be another Marcos killer or Marcos fascist.”
After decades of conflict, however, the more hawkish might still be chasing that elusive military victory.
“They have the feeling they’re already winning. So why should they miss that?” Coronel-Ferrer said. “But they will never really eradicate them.”