Toward a sociology of peace

People are puzzled by President Duterte’s abrupt turnabout in his quest for an enduring peaceful resolution of the decades-old communist insurgency. I suspect that at some point he felt he was being taken for a fool, or shortchanged, by a movement whose friendship he had avidly cultivated, and whose aspirations he thought he shared.

Since we’re approaching Valentine’s Day, I hope I may be forgiven if I borrow some motifs from the sociology of love in order to develop some insights for a sociology of peace.  I think we’re dealing here with two modes of loving whose incompatibility has been overshadowed by the ardor of initial affection.

In his book “Postmodern Ethics,” the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote about two types of lovers who try to deal with the instability of the emotions and the uncertainties of the social world. The strategies they adopt, Bauman says, are akin to those that governments use in order to protect the value of their currency in periods of uncertainty. They will either try to “fix” the exchange rate, or to “float” it.

To “fix” one’s love is to treat it as a “duty,” a necessary shield against future fluctuations. This strategy, Bauman writes, basically entails agreeing that “whatever happens to their emotions, partners will go on benefiting from love’s gifts: the other partner’s concern, care, responsibility. An effort to reach the state in which one can go on receiving without giving more, or giving no more than the established pattern demands.” (Interestingly, Bauman doesn’t say how lovers of this type behave when they realize that their partner is taking advantage of them.)

To “float” one’s love, on the other hand, is to treat it as a reciprocal relationship.  Here’s how Bauman describes it: “The strategy of ‘cutting one’s losses’, of ‘not throwing good money after bad’, of giving up trying, and looking elsewhere for another try once the gains seem to have fallen below the level of expenses needed to secure them.”  In short, love’s value is not fixed; it rises and falls depending on what both partners actually bring into it.

Which type of lover does President Duterte resemble? On the question of peace with the communist rebels, I frankly think he began as a partner who viewed the forging of a peace agreement with the Left as an act of duty, a commitment, and a responsibility.  That’s why he went out of his way, just before the 2016 presidential election, to chat via Skype with exiled former Communist Party of the Philippines leader Jose Maria Sison, to tell him how much he looked forward to restarting the peace talks and ending the war with the communist forces. He did so knowing this could be used to smear him as a communist candidate.

Again, right after the election, he went out on a limb when he announced that he was offering the communist movement three seats in the Cabinet. This was unprecedented and highly unexpected. I suspect even the Left was at first unsure what to make of it. That the President would actually make these appointments ahead of any peace agreement appeared as a reckless expenditure of political capital.

But, these moves had the positive effect of speeding up the peace talks, the one bright spot in a political landscape dominated by the daily killings in the barbaric war on drugs. Mr. Duterte’s obsession with the drug menace seemed to be matched only by his strong determination to conclude a peace agreement with the communist rebels.

He demonstrated this yet again when he announced a unilateral ceasefire and released top leaders of the underground from prison to enable them to travel and participate in the  peace talks abroad. The National Democratic Front gleefully welcomed these initiatives even as it manifested a more calibrated response to Mr. Duterte’s show of goodwill. It was obvious that it didn’t want to be rushed into calling for a ceasefire among its ranks. This makes one wonder to what extent the political leadership of the CPP-NDF speaks for its regional armed commands.

Be that as it may, last Feb. 1, the Mindanao command of the New People’s Army declared the lifting of its own ceasefire, to take effect 10 days later.  But, for reasons that have not been explained, its forces decided to mount offensive strikes against government forces days ahead of Feb. 10. In what appears to be a planned ambush, they killed three soldiers in Bukidnon, including a young officer who had just graduated from the Philippine Military Academy.  This was followed by the abduction of policemen in other parts of the country.

Some have suggested that certain elements are staging these events to sabotage the negotiations. Others suspect that the rebels are using the resumption of hostilities to exert pressure for the release of more than 400 members of the movement from government detention.

Mr. Duterte’s reaction came as swiftly and as unexpectedly as his unilateral declaration of a ceasefire.  In a span of three days, he called for an all-out war against the rebels whom he now labels as terrorists, and ordered the immediate arrest of the same top communist leaders he had released just months earlier. He has not only terminated the peace talks, he has also canceled the existing Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantee that had protected participants in the peace talks from arrest and reprisal.

Joma Sison once characterized Mr. Duterte’s angry moves as the behavior of a “thug.”  If true, I would say this is the behavior of a thug who expected that there would be honor among thugs. All this makes one wonder which type of peace partner is preferable: one who sees peace as an inflexible act of duty, or one who approaches it as a game of strategic calculation.