By Katie Comfort
I first heard about the Philippine peace talks in late 2016, as a new member of the Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (PCHRP). Filled with ignorance about the current situation in the Philippines, I immediately felt nervous and anxious that the group I had joined was advocating to be present at a negotiation table. It seemed to me that these processes always tried to normalize power between the rulers and the rebels, ignoring class dynamics and encouraging one side to sacrifice more than the other (often subversively). I assumed that the fifth round of peace talks would play out exactly how Oslo has with more land lost and more power ceded. However, as this fifth round of political negotiations has progressed, I have found a renewed hope in seeing representatives from people’s movements sitting across the table from their aggressors. In learning more about the Filipino struggle for national democracy, I have found renewed hope in the ability of Palestinians and their international solidarity allies to join together as a force that can still advocate and negotiate for a free Palestine. While the conditions of Palestine are vastly different than the Philippines, the fifth round of peace talks for Filipino liberation lets me glimpse the future of a free Palestine as well.
It is impossible to spend time in the occupied territories of Palestine and not gain a visceral understanding that the famed Oslo Peace Process of the 1990s was a total failure for Palestinians. Clinton’s “road map to peace” ultimately led to segregated bus and highway systems. Israel’s agreement to withdraw from Palestinian soil ultimately led to blockades and isolation practices which created the open air prison of Gaza. Oslo has, in many ways, forsaken the Palestinian cause.With no agency to build its own infrastructure or support, international and humanitarian aid have created dependency and further disenfranchised Palestinians. Palestine has become a slave to its own liberation by way of grant applications and conditional international support. It has lost land, access to resources, and a collective consciousness of history; all while its government continues to grow in power for its own sake. The myth that exists in Israeli consciousness to this day is that Oslo failed; not because it was doomed to fail, but because there “was no partner for peace”. This claim isn’t wrong; there was no partner for peace on behalf of the Palestinian people. The Oslo process focused on intangible ideas and idealisms. It failed because it normalized relationships between Israeli and Palestinian Leadership; further isolating the PLO from the intifada movement happening on the ground. At the time of Oslo the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine denounced the process because it relied on engaging in political dialogue with its aggressor instead of on strategic resistance. This normalization is continuously seen between the PLO and Israeli government today, as global capitalism and neoliberalism is spread through diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.
Oslo demanded that Palestinians succeed to the demands of an international superpower which imperialistically determined what was important and what was not; this imperialism can still be felt in the form of humanitarian and military aid. The real power at the negotiating table was not Israel’s delegation, but the US team that manipulated and directed the terms of the agreement from the very beginning. The Oslo accords failed because it did not address the needs of the people; and the Palestinians at the negotiating table weren’t ready to advocate for those needs- namely, the right of return, for access to land, and for international borders to be drawn. According to one analyst: “The Palestinians were invited to discover whether they have rights, but not to claim their internationally-guaranteed rights.” Oslo was never about two equal sides working out how everyone’s needs could be met; it was ultimately a way to ensure that Israel and the US could maintain control of the region and garner international sympathy.
The peace talks in the Philippines also run the risk of normalizing relationships between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The GRP is represented by democratically elected officials who are members of the Philippine’s most prominent and wealthiest families. These officials are not only powerful politicians, they also own a majority of the land in the Philippines and operate semi-feudal, semi-colonial systems of farming and production. In contrast, the NDFP names its goal as national freedom and democratic rights for the Filipino people through the end of US imperialism, landlord ownership, and attaining national liberation. The NDFP representatives at the negotiation table are religious leaders, farmers, and leaders of the people’s movement.
The NDFP is the umbrella organization for the National Democratic movement of the Philippines and includes the formation of the New People’s Army (NPA). While the official military of the Philippines, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), has an annual operating budget of 555 million USD and receives extensive operational training from US forces stationed around the archipelago, the NPA operates at a grassroots level and sees its role as a way to provide necessary services to indigenous and isolated regions on the Philippines, especially in Mindanao, the southernmost region.
The peace process started in 1986 under President Aquino, but it wasn’t until 1995, under president Ramos, that any agreement was signed off on. Despite the signing of the “Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees” (JASIG) and the “Comprehensive Agreement to Respect Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law” (CARHRIHL) in 1995, the talks outlasted two more Filipino administrations and the fifth rounds are continuing now under president Duterte.
The goal of these talks is to resolve the civil war that has been going on between the NDFP and GRP since 1969. The NDFP identifies three roots of the conflict: (1) the colonial and neocolonial domination of the country by Spanish and then US imperialism, (2) feudal exploitation by big landlords, and (3) exploitation by big capitalists and widespread bureaucratic corruption. These three root problems of the Philippines disproportionately impact the peasant and working classes (a total of 75% of the population).
The NDFP believes that addressing these three root problems and creating a democratic system which is accountable to the majority as the most effective way to liberate the Philippines. Their push for liberation is not ideological but practical. Through the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reform (CASER) the NDFP has a framework for addressing practical issues, such as industrialization, at the table with the GRP. CASER primarily addresses ways that economic sovereignty and independence can be achieved through national industrialization and agrarian reform; but the agreement also addresses social justice issues facing women, students, LGBTQ, differently abled communities, indigenous communities and others who are disproportionately affected by the current conditions of the Philippines. In other words, despite unequal power dynamics at the table–the NDFP brings tangible demands and unwaveringly asserts the importance of their agenda when negotiating with the GRP. They achieve this by refusing to sign ceasefire agreements without collateral agreements from the GRP, knowing full well that their armed struggle is their biggest strength.
What the Philippine peace talks have taught me is this: people power is ultimately unstoppable. While traditional diplomatic negotiations serve to normalize and silence, the NDFP-GRP peace talks offer the NDFP an opportunity to leverage their interests on behalf of all Filipino and indigenous people. While the NDFP lacks access to tangible political power on an international level, its willingness to be unyielding at the negotiation table allows the Filipino Liberation Struggle to maintain agency, free of international influence. Imagine if in 1993 Yasser Arafat had sat across from Yitzhak Rabin and demanded that Palestinians be given the right of return, that Palestinian land be returned to its rightful owners and that the West Bank and Gaza be given full access to natural resources and industrialization. Imagine what might have happened if Arafat had leveraged the power of the Intifada, framing it as a tool which provided resources to Palestinians who were isolated by military occupation.The NDFP sees its power coming from the Filipino people that it seeks to serve and represent;the PLO and Palestinian Liberation Movement need to center this same ethos when they arrive at the table again.
What I do find hopeful for Palestine is that this work is being done outside the negotiation room. Through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction Movement (BDS) Palestinians are able to guide the international discourse on current Israeli aggressions against Palestine. The BDS movement gives back to Palestine that which it lost during the Oslo process; to reinstate economic power and to pressure Israel to concede to Palestinian demands as the entire world shows that the liberation of Palestine is imperative. BDS is not the full answer, but it is a tool to be used as leverage and as a way to garner support for Palestine’s demands in the future.
By supporting BDS FOSNA is contributing to the strengthening, not just of the Palestinian Liberation Movement,but of the global movement for liberation. The freedom of Palestine is incomplete without the freedom of the Philippines, and vice versa. And so it is also imperative that we look at each of these struggles and learn from their histories, and begin to encourage them to imagine their liberated futures together as they challenge capitalism, imperialism, and the occupation of land.