By: Nonoy Espina,
September 18, 2013 11:19 AM
The online news portal of TV5
OSLO, Norway — Notwithstanding the exchange of bellicose words and declarations of termination or suspensions of agreements, the peace process involving communist rebels and the government “has not ended” and could even resume within the remaining term of President Benigno Aquino III.
However, Norwegian Special Envoy Ture Lundh, the third-party facilitator in the negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front, said there is a need for a “stronger, bigger peace constituency” to pressure both parties to continue talking and seeking a negotiated end to the almost 45-year old communist insurgency, the longest-running in Asia, if not the world.
Asked about the status of the peace talks with the NDF by visiting journalists, Lundh called it “a process” of “continuous communication” and stressed that, “The most important thing is that the process has not ended.”
From late last year to late February this year, NDF and government representatives embarked on a series of discussions in Amsterdam and The Hague — there was also what Lundh called “a very good meeting” with President Benigno Aquino III in Malacanang — on a so-called “special track” that could have accelerated the peace process.
This was actually based on a 2005 NDF proposal for a “truce and alliance based on a general declaration of common intent” that the rebels suggested be discussed “on a special track” separate from the formal peace talks, or “regular track.”
Under the proposal, both parties would form a “Committee of National Unity, Peace and Development” to implement agrarian reform, rural development and national industrialization.
“On the basis of the above-mentioned points, a truce would be declared and implemented,” NDF chief negotiator Luis Jalandoni was quoted by news reports as saying early in the discussions.
Government negotiators at the time called the proposal “doable.”
The optimism was such that, at the December 2012 meetings in The Hague, the panels of “special representatives” from both parties agreed to the longest Christmas season ceasefire in the history of the insurgency, running 27 days from midnight of December 20 to midnight of January 15, 2013.
Lundh himself, during the interview at the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the special track, an initiative of Communist Party of the Philippines founder and NDF senior political consultant Jose Ma. Sison, “really promised a lot.”
“Both (parties) had a realistic hope that the special track would really be able to (let them) reach (a peace) agreement much faster,” Lundh recalled.
So promising, in fact, that according to the NDF, presidential political adviser Ronald Llamas suggested that Aquino and Sison might meet in Hanoi, reminiscent of a much touted one-on-one with Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo.
“At first, it was good,” Lundh said. “But after a couple of months, bad things, misunderstandings started coming out.”
The discussions on the special track eventually collapsed during the February meetings, with the NDF blaming government for its insistence on “simultaneous unilateral and indefinite ceasefires in disparate areas only to reduce the level of violence” but without discussing the main roots of the conflict, while the rebels were accused of obsessing on their “precondition” for the release of jailed consultants.
Since then, there has mostly been recrimination from both sides, with government announcing a “new localized approach” that would bypass the rebels’ national leadership and which the NDF said was “cover” for government plans to scuttle the talks, and a spike in armed clashes following rebel announcements of more operations against government targets.
“After the special track, the process was halted … we couldn’t rush forward … (we) had to reevaluate,” Lundh said. “That’s where it is right now, (with both parties) looking for ways to move forward.”
“I am sure it was a disappointment for all,” he added.
But, in a phrase he would invoke again and again throughout the interview, Lundh kept stressing that, “the most important thing is that the process has not ended.”
Lundh declined to comment when asked what could be done to bring both parties back to the negotiating table, stressing: “Being a facilitator, we are very clear that we do not own the process. We act only on the behest of the actors in the conflict.”
However, he did say that, “We definitely see the possibility of the process resuming” within the remainder of Aquino’s term, which ends in 2016.
Nevertheless, he said another player, albeit one that may not be so visibly involved, may need to come into play more openly to help make this happen — the peace constituency.
Although the formal peace process involves the main parties to the conflict, Lundh said there are “several tracks going on,” among these one that involves church organizations, civil society and other sectors that have an equal, if not bigger, stake in seeing peace become reality.
“A peace constituency is extremely important” to bring “pressure on the actors” in the conflict who, logically, are not likely to trust each other much, Lundh said.
“In the Philippines, the church organizations are the strong ones” when it comes to involvement in the peace process.
However, Lundh says, there is a need for a “stronger” and “larger” peace constituency if any substantial pressure is to be brought on the parties to return to negotiations.
“I encourage the business community, journalists, human rights organizations” to get involved as well, he said.
Lundh pointed out that, while Norway is currently involved in more than 20 peace processes, most of these are “in cooperation with other actors,” for example the United Nations, or “strategic partnerships with other organizations.”
The Philippines, he said, is one of the “very few conflicts in which we are the sole facilitator,” alongside Sri Lanka and Colombia.
So what makes Norway an apparent favorite as facilitator?
Lundh points to a “perceived impartiality with a low degree of self-interest.”
“We are a small, peaceful nation with no political or economic interests to cast doubt on our intent,” he said.
Norway’s policy of engagement also has a “strong focus on dialogue with everyone.”
“In most conflicts, the US (or) UN, etc., can’t talk to one or the other party … for example those on terror lists. But we are allowed to talk with everybody,” he said, adding, “We have to dialogue (even) with parties we may totally not agree with.”
In the case of the Philippines, the New People’s Army and Sison are in the US’ terror list.
Not that the idea of “internationalizing” the peace process has not been raised before. However, Lundh said neither party appeared interested.
In the end, Lundh stressed, it is “not for us to dictate” the success or failure of the process.
“There has to be a concerted effort from both parties. They may not trust each other but they must trust that we can make a difference,” he said.
“What the Filipino people have been going through for the past 40 years … it is a terrible conflict with so much history … (so much) institutionalized memory and suffering,” he said. “We care that both parties want to achieve peace together.”