TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Analysts say Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's announced plan to restart peace talks with violent communist rebels, aimed at ending a 50-year conflict after three failed efforts, would earn him a place in history if he succeeds and help bring investment to impoverished, strife-torn parts of the country.
Previous talks broke down when each side accused the other of initiating attacks, sometimes violating cease-fires. The most recent round collapsed in March.
Duterte said December 5 he will send a peace negotiator to the Netherlands to restart talks with Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, the presidential office website states.
A peace deal with the party and its armed unit, the New People’s Army, would boost Duterte’s image as a peacemaker when he steps down in 2022 due to term limits, country analysts believe.
“For Duterte, he has two years left in his term and he probably is thinking of a legacy, and one of his legacies would be to end the communist insurgency,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
“At least he could say he tried to talk to the reds but it would appear that the reds are unreasonable and he cannot be blamed for using his strong-arm tactics," he said.
Restart to talks
Philippine officials and the insurgency may be able to negotiate a peace deal if the government first frees party-backed prisoners and the rebels suspend acts of violence, Araral said.
Government attacks on the New People’s Army have reduced the number of combatants to 4,000, down from a peak of some 17,000, domestic media reports say. The party claims about 70,000 members. The New People’s Army may feel “cornered” in parts of the country, Araral said.
“There’s enough motivation from both sides to get the peace talks moving forward again,” he said.
Fighting such as ambushes on soldiers has killed about 30,000 people over the past five decades. The rebels further frustrate the government with continued requests for prisoner releases followed by new attacks. They sometimes attack construction firms and demand that companies pay taxes.
Rebel leaders have said they believe Duterte has not released enough prisoners.
Duterte said via his office website he had tried to negotiate three times with the Communists but “failed.” He pledged before taking office in 2016 to eradicate a range of criminal activity and prides himself on an understanding of rebel causes because he served for 22 years as mayor in Davao City, near some of their strongholds.
Duterte should realize use of force against the New People’s Army does little good because the Communists – initially inspired by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong – have support in poor areas that feel ignored by the state, and can easily recruit new people, analysts say. About one-fifth of Filipinos live in poverty.
“They have a quite strong follow among the well-educated youth in a number of universities, and those are going to become the future ideologues of the party, so there is a very important underground of very well-educated scholars and students and other people dealing with these matters,” Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia specialist at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association, told VOA.
Duterte had said in March, when he cut off talks most recently, that he would let the next president take up the issue.
Now he’s probably thinking now about his “legacy,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabaya alliance of leftist organizations.
“It’s impossible to wipe them out because of the prevailing social conditions, so what we are proposing is that instead of a military solution you undertake a political solution and do this through negotiations, which is more productive than any militarist option,” Reyes said, referring to the advice his group would give Duterte.
Investment in conflict zones
The National People’s Army operates largely in the Philippine archipelago’s Visayan Islands and in Mindanao, a southern island where Muslim rebels have additional strongholds. Duterte said on December 5 the Bicol region southeast of Manila also “remains a hotbed for communist insurgency.”
Poverty persists in many of those spots because of incomplete land reforms, high minimum wages that discourage hiring and a lack of government incentives to seek work in cities, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a study published online. Some farmers live in one-room thatched huts with only dirt roads to move produce to markets.
Investors in developing countries often worry about “the risk of asset destruction,” an unavailability of infrastructure, and “abrupt declines in domestic demand” in civil war zones, the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency says in a report posted to its website.
Tourism infrastructure is expanding along the Philippine coastlines and near the capital Manila. Factory investors often pick ex-urban Manila because of its advanced infrastructure. The Philippines economy as a whole is expected to grow 6% this year, well above the world average, the Asian Development Bank forecasts.
“If there’s insurgency, that hinders development,” Cau said.