Dealing with the armed left

We rejoice in the return to their families of the soldiers and policemen taken as captives by forces affiliated with the National Democratic Front (NDF).  We salute the individuals who intervened at a most crucial moment to negotiate their release.  We commend the NDF for agreeing to the release, just as we commend the government for withdrawing its forces to make it happen.

But let us pause to examine what exactly the NDF accomplished by abducting members of the police and the armed forces.  If the NDF’s intention was to show that the New People’s Army (NPA) treats its captives better than the government treats its own prisoners, was it necessary to go through all of this to prove this simple point?  The public does not need this lesson to realize how miserable government prisons are and how deeply flawed the prevailing system of justice is. Ordinary Filipinos already know this, as they affirm it again and again in their everyday lives.

Moreover, while it is good for the captured soldiers to realize that communist rebels are human beings too who are capable of generosity, one wonders if taking prisoners, treating them well, and releasing them later on the intercession of a humanitarian mission is the best way to demonstrate the humanity of the NPA.  Shouldn’t the NPA or the NDF explain first why it was necessary to abduct government soldiers and policemen?  At the time of their capture, none of these soldiers and policemen appeared to have been involved in any immediate encounter or military operation.  It is not clear that any one of them in particular was guilty of a crime.  They are protagonists only in the sense that they are members of the armed forces.  To call them “prisoners of war” seems inappropriate,  unless the NDF now considers the abduction of any soldier or, for that matter, any official of the Philippine government an acceptable act of war.

If, on the other hand, the NDF’s plan was to secure the immediate release of political prisoners languishing in various jails of the country, again it is arguable if taking prisoners by abduction was the best way to do it.  If the armed left wishes to retain the goodwill of progressive forces around the world, can it afford to be associated with kidnapping?  The government has already said that it would not agree to a  prisoner swap, but it has promised to free or release on bail a number of detainees accused of rebellion and other common crimes, in conformity with the Hernandez doctrine.  This solution is a clear product of the peace negotiations, and its actualization can be pursued as part of the peace process.

Time and again the NDF has called President Estrada a goon.  But if this is correct, then the NDF should have known that you cannot force a goon to negotiate by threatening him or by kidnapping his people.  If we are closer to a resumption of the peace talks today, it is not because of the abduction of the soldiers; it can only be because of their unconditional release.

Though different motives are at play in these talks, the fact that they can be held at all is already a credit to the NDF and the government. That is reason enough to reopen them.  The government should not insist that the Constitution serve as the explicit framework for these negotiations, just as the NDF should not act as if it already possessed a status of belligerency.  The government panel ought to know what it can lawfully negotiate and what it cannot.  And the NDF ought to know that it has already accomplished much, relative to its present capabilities, by bringing the government to the negotiating table.   The clarification of first doctrines can wait.  What is important is the refocusing of the talks on practical programs of social reform.

The reform of our society is what this is about after all.  The government pursues change in its own way, that is, by the authority of a political consensus achieved through elections and referenda.  This route is slow and conservative.  Social movements think that existing legal processes are woefully  inadequate.  Thus, they test the limits of what is legal, and invent new ways of fighting for social reform, short of taking up arms against the government.  But the NDF chooses armed struggle, believing that this is the only option left for attaining meaningful change in our society.

This is not the time to argue who is right.  That debate has its own time and place.  Rather we must take off from what we already have: from the readiness of the government after Edsa to engage the forces of radical social change, both armed and unarmed, in venues other than prisons or “safe” houses, or fields of armed combat. This is an advance in our political life that we cannot lose sight of, because the alternatives – political terror and civil war – will not bring us any closer to achieving the goals of our nation.

Neither the government nor the NDF can force the other to sit down and talk.  But the Filipino people can, because this nation is a space we share with them.  The government and the NDF must go back to the peace table.  They must show goodwill and respect for one another, and, above all, reasonableness.  A third party, civil society, must be represented in these talks, if only to know which nation the two main parties are speaking for when they talk of the Filipino people.

We all have a duty to be interested in the peace talks.  For the country that is being talked about is not just the government’s or the NDF’s; it is ours too.  And the future that is being forged is not just the politicians’ or the rebels’; it is our children’s too.


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