The language of war

The NPA has not been conducting those raids on police detachments and taking hostages in the process just to show it is not a spent force. It has been doing so, above all, to remind the government that it is engaged in a civil war, that there exists a duality of political power in the country, and that it would be best for the two parties in this conflict to abide by the accepted rules of war.

The release the other day of the NPA’s “prisoners of war”, Police Major Rene Francisco and Army Sgt. Joaquin Melad, to a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross is but an enactment of a reality that exists in the eyes of the armed communist movement.  The definition of that reality presumes the existence of two governments in the Philippines: in the words of Jose Maria Sison, “a white one in Malacanang and a red one in the countryside”.

While it may be difficult for the general public to accept this representation of the country’s political situation, the government in Malacanang during the presidency of Fidel Ramos has surprisingly moved very close to affirming this description.  After 2 years of formal negotiations between the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Philippine government (GRP), the draft of an agreement, the first of many accords expected, may be signed before President Ramos steps down from office.  This is the comprehensive agreement on respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

This is an interesting agreement because while obviously patterned after the rules of war entered into by warring states, it nevertheless explicitly avoids referring to the NDF as a government.  The government panel knows what it is doing: it resolutely dodges the issue of conferring belligerency status upon the NDF.  Yet the agreement is expected to be signed by the president of the Philippines and the chairman of the NDF, suggesting a parity between the signatories.

I have talked to members of both negotiating panels and have remarked on the complexity and near impossibility of finding a neutral language that will satisfy their conflicting definitions of reality.  But they seem optimistic about reaching an agreement.  When and if they do, the resulting document will surely be an example of the fine art of linguistic accommodation.    Those who read it will wonder if the NDF has not tried to win in words what it has yet to prove in practice, or whether the GRP has not conceded in words what it knows it will never  affirm in practice.

If Ka Roger of the NPA’s Melito Glor command is to be believed, Major Francisco and Sgt. Melad will not be the last “combatants” of the government to be taken as prisoners of war.  “The offensives will continue,” he was reported as saying, “whenever there is an opportunity.  Whenever it can, the NPA will take prisoners.”  This places at the center of the discussion the very thing that the government panel has tried to avoid, namely, the treatment and handling of prisoners of war.

The NDF demands that the protocols of the Geneva Convention be adopted as part of the comprehensive agreement on human rights and international humanitarian law.  These protocols, however, pertain to conflicts among states.  The government treats the CPP-NPA-NDF as an insurgent group, and not as an established political authority enjoying international recognition, while the military continues to call its members “dissident terrorists”.

One cannot see how the Philippine government can forge an agreement on the release and exchange of prisoners of war without acknowledging that it is dealing with another government, or at least with a competing political authority within the same state.  Yet it is clear that in every instance, the government must negotiate the release of  its soldiers and police taken by the NPA.  And when it does, can it avoid reciprocating with the release of political prisoners?

The NDF has not explicitly demanded an exchange of prisoners of war, but it is clear from its statements that it feels entitled to expect a reciprocal act of goodwill from the government.  The latter may well release some prisoners charged with political crimes, but it will say this has nothing to do with the release of Francisco and Melad.

The government treads on very sensitive ground here.  While it has entered into a process of negotiation with the NDF, it must not give the impression that it has recognized the NDF as the over-all spokesperson of all those who harbor grievances against the government.   For that would mean that the government understands only the language of arms.  Moreover, not everyone in prison for political offenses may want to claim affiliation with the NDF or its ideology.  And certainly, not every group that is critical of the government would like the NDF to speak for them.

But having said that, I think that we must equally recognize what the NDF has done here.  By sustaining an armed struggle over nearly three decades, it has brought the government to the negotiating table, not only to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners, but, more importantly, to refocus attention on the social and economic reforms that are needed to end the antagonistic conflicts in our society.

It is amazing how peace can hang on the balance of a choice of words.  For this reason, I consider it fortunate that the NDF’s political consultant, Joma Sison, is also a poet.


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