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A taxi driver’s guide to peace in the Philippines

March 28, 2014

A version of this blog post also appeared on International Alert’s website

The Philippines government signed a Final Peace Agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday in an impressive ceremony in Manila, after decades of fighting and instability. I asked my taxi driver in Manila what he thought about this.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They haven’t really explained what it’s all about. Will all of the Moros agree? I still wonder whether people who have lost their sons will be ready to forgive. Maybe this is just another deal between the people at the top which will bring little improvement in the little people’s lives.”

Meanwhile last week there was a major development in the other long-running conflict in the Philippines, when two high level members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) were arrested. Unlike the MILF conflict, which is about the rights of the Moro people of the Southern Philippines for regional autonomy, the NDF conflict is about class and ideology, and is nationwide in character. It is rooted in a Marxist struggle against an oligarchic political system, possibly reflecting our taxi driver’s final point, above.

At first sight, these two events seem markedly different, perhaps even diametrically opposed: on the one hand, a peace agreement signed after a long period of negotiations; on the other, the government acting to detain two cadres of the NDF with which it is also engaged in a long-running peace negotiation. Indeed, some commentators have denounced the arrest as undermining the peace process.

Yet both events cam be seen as opportunities for peace. The Government-NDF peace process has for some time been making little progress. One of the reasons for this seems to be that the NDF side is divided about how to proceed, while the Government is trying to pursue a coherent, single approach. So there has been a lot of speculation this week that these arrests might pave the way for the peace talks – or at least some behind-the-scenes exploratory conversations to be resumed.

The Government-MILF agreement is also an opportunity for achieving peace over the long term—and everyone is awed by the crucial tasks ahead. It provides for the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro government and sets out the process through which this can take place.

After years of civil war and instability, there are many reasons to be optimistic about this. But as the taxi driver suggested, there are also reasons for concern. Not all of the Bangsamoro people are happy with the deal that’s been struck, and the technical process for establishing the Bangsamoro autonomous government is strewn with a number of political obstacles which may trip it up. No peace agreement by itself secures peace: that is done by the way people respond to their new situation, and it requires a concerted effort usually going way beyond and much deeper than the specific terms of the agreement.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity for peace in Philippines will require a sustained effort on the part of central and local governments, by the rebel movements, as well as in civil society and the business community, over several years. Some of the factors they will need to take into account were identified at by my taxi driver. They include:

  • A recognition that much of the unaddressed conflict in the Philippines is not between rebels and government – so-called vertical conflict – but rather what’s sometimes known as horizontal conflict, between different groups and factions in society. These unresolved conflicts may simmer and all too easily erupt, and have the potential to undermine the official peace processes.
  • There is a communication gap, in that most people – and not just my taxi driver – really don’t know what the implications of the Bangsamoro peace agreement are. Even local government leaders in and near the proposed Bangsamoro aren’t well-informed, let alone private citizens. In such circumstances there is ample room for rumours and misunderstandings to derail progress towards peace.
  • The political economy of the Philippines needs to evolve – even if Marxism is not the answer. Almost thirty years after Marcos fell from office, far too much political and economic power remains in the hands of far too few people. Rent-seeking behaviour and other forms of corruption – the bane of broad-based economic development and therefore of peace and stability – remains prevalent up and down the system. Far too much of the economy is outside the tax system, not just because it consists of small-scale informal transactions, but also because it is hidden by the shadows in which smuggling, drugs and arms dealing, and other illicit transactions occur.

“We all need to participate in peace”, as my taxi driver said, “not just the ones signing the agreement tomorrow.”

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