On June 30, Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated as the 16th president of the Philippines—a Southeast Asian country that has experienced rapid economic development. Some people have described him as an “Asian Donald Trump” due to his authoritarian and uncompromising remarks. However, when closely scrutinized, his policies do have some rational and meaningful foundations. His new policies regarding communist rebels raise the new prospect of ideological diversity in Philippine society.
Duterte served as the mayor of Davao City for 22 years until June 2016. During his tenure, he received massive support based on harsh punishments against malfeasance, and was subsequently elected as the President. Besides his renowned legal policies, one of his 10 major promises was to end the civil war between the government and communist rebel organizations, including the National Democratic Front (NDF). It will be necessary to take a closer look at the implications for political diversity in the Philippines of Duterte’s new policies regarding peace negotiations.
The Clash between the Government and Rebels
Historically, the rise of the communist rebels traces back to the 1930s, when the impoverishment of peasants was prevalent in the Philippines. As a result, communist movements, especially Maoism, which promoted peasant revolutions, rapidly spread. Maoist guerillas contributed to the independence movement against Japanese colonization, but even after the Philippines was liberated in 1946, the social structure centered on landowners remained unaffected. Starting from the 1960s when nationalism gained popularity, rebels have functioned as influential opposition against the government’s anti-communism, utilizing both military and political means to maintain their position in society.
The long-lasting clash over economic and political reformation remains unresolved. Regarding this stalemate, Professor Kim Dong-Yeob (the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Busan University of Foreign Studies) explains that, “Two important factors stand behind the failure in compromise: the alliance between the governments of the Philippines and the United States, and the continuance of social polarization.” Due to alliance with the representative of liberal democracy, the government has remained reluctant to embrace communists. Simultaneously, economic and political polarization has been significant, helping the rebels to maintain their social influence.
The Rise of Duterte
This deadlock entered a new phase when Duterte became the new president. After promising peace with rebels, he implemented various unprecedented measures. In order to alter the impression of government intransigence, he appointed several leftist politicians to the legislature and accepted NDF nominees in executive bodies. In addition, he released the leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a political body associated with the NDF, to facilitate the negotiation process. This exceptionally generous attitude shown by the government enabled profound communication regarding a possible ceasefire.
▲ Rally conducted by communists in Philippines. Provided by philippinerevolution.net
Eventually, peace negotiations were held in Oslo, Norway, from August 22 to 26. The results were optimistic; both parties agreed to initiate an indefinite ceasefire and host additional meetings in October to negotiate further reform. While the outcome is incomplete, the fact that the violence that has led to the loss of approximately 40,000 lives has finally ceased makes it meaningful. Indisputably, Duterte has played a major role in paving the way for a consensus. Professor Kim explained that, “Duterte’s magnanimous attitude throughout the negotiations exerted a crucial influence on the positive result.”
Nonetheless, it is still too early to celebrate. Some fundamental limitations might prevent these negotiations from functioning as a turning point. Professor Kim explains that, “The communist movement in the Philippines is factionalized based on region and ideology. Even though the NDF is the largest force, it is unable to entirely represent communists.” This means that other organizations unaffiliated with the NDF are not obliged to conform to the compromise established two months ago. Furthermore, since the entire clash originated from social polarization, resolving it in the long term seems to be vital for a complete end to the conflict.
What is Next?
Because the ceasefire established in 2013 failed due to opposition from the rebels, how both parties react to the current situation is important. The government should concentrate on long-term solutions that can reform the social structure to transform the conditional ceasefire into a permanent one. Willingness to embrace the rebels, as Duterte has demonstrated over the past few months, should continue, and political reformation that can guarantee the unconstrained political participation of communists should follow. In addition, for impoverished peasants, an adequate and organized welfare system should be established to ensure their survival.
Rebels should continue to pursue nonviolence by avoiding any kind of radical actions, including military aggression. It will also be important for them to refrain from making any unreasonable request to maintain the peace. More importantly, however, they should represent the voices of the underclass to contribute to the resolution of the fundamental problem. Professor Kim explains that, “The representatives of the rebels should request adequate measures that can eradicate poverty among peasants. If they succeed to do so, the government will make efforts that can resolve economic polarization, the root of this entire conflict.”
▲ Professor Kim Dong-Yeob. Photographed by Maeng Jun Ho.
The Uncertain Future of the Philippines
The future of the Philippines remains unclear, with both hope and doubt coexisting. Because the recent ceasefire is tentative, nobody can predict whether it will return to a vicious cycle of conflict or become a pioneer of perpetual peace. The future will depend on whether both parties can overcome practical barriers, including factionalism, through cooperation. Professor Kim explains that, “This ceasefire will severely decrease the size of conflict. However, it will not completely disappear, and whether it returns or not will be determined by whether low class poverty can be extinguished in the long term.”
A beam of light in this uncertainty is Duterte, who exhibits a strong will to end the civil war. While the process of negotiation might be difficult, Duterte’s unprecedented policies have encouraged others to view the future with a feeling of expectancy. It will be interesting to observe whether he can establish a political environment where various ideologies can create harmony without conflict. If both parties can utilize the recent negotiations as a starting point for change, rather than as the final destination, the Philippines will become a society that can embrace political diversity.