Coni K. Ledesma from National Democratic Front of the Philippines to tour Canada to promote peace talks

In the face of an armed conflict which has been underway in the Philippines for the last forty years, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the underground revolutionary organization, recently announced plans to resume peace negotiations. The last formal discussions were held five years ago.

To talk about these latest peace initiatives, as well as the upcoming elections in the Philippines, Coni K. Ledesma, member of the NDFP Negotiating Panel and a former political prisoner, will be touring Canada September 9 – 23, 2009. She will be in Montreal September 13 – 15, 2009 and is available for interviews.

(PHOTO: Coni Ledesma (head of table in red) with other members of NDFP negotiation panel (left of photo) meet Philippine government representatives in Oslo, Norway for informal talks in October 2003- BULATLAT)

The peace talks, set for the end of August 2009, are presently stalled, with the NDFP negotiating panel accusing the government of failing to comply with agreements made during a meeting of some members of the GRP and NDFP panels on June 15, 2009, particularly regarding immunity from arrest to members, consultants and staff of the NDFP negotiating team.

“Earlier this year the Philippine government promised to lift its so-called suspension of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG). Yet only one NDFP consultant, Randall Echanis, has been released, and it was conditional for only six months in gross violation of the terms of JASIG,” said Coni Ledesma. She said that as a result, NDFP consultants, who are still detained and the subject of arrest warrants, have been prevented from participating in the formal peace negotiations which were set to begin in Oslo, Norway.

Filipinos in Canada, along with Canadian citizens concerned about the situation in this Asian country, welcomed the initial announcement of the resumption of negotiations aimed at “resolving the armed conflict” and attaining a “just and lasting peace.” They realize it has been seventeen years since the GRP and the NDFP signed The Hague Joint Declaration containing those twin objectives, and eleven years since the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL). This agreement, signed by both parties following intensive discussions, outlined the path to peace while recognizing official belligerent status for the NDFP and its armed component, the New People's Army (NPA).

“With the impact of the global economic crisis on our brothers and sisters at home and the millions of Filipino migrants abroad, the next set of peace talks are crucial since the main part of the agenda will look at basic social and economic reforms in the Philippines,” said Joey Calugay, Secretary General of Bayan Canada, an organization representing progressive Filipinos across Canada.

But Calugay points out that the hindrances to the resumption of talks are major. “Among them are human rights violations, including over 1000 political killings and enforced disappearances of progressive leaders and activists since 2001 in which the military and police have been implicated, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's declaration to wipe out the insurgents by 2010,” said Calugay. Shortly after a visit in 2002 by then US State Secretary Colin Powell to the Philippines, President Arroyo redeployed troops to various NPA-controlled areas of the Philippines, virtually declaring “all- out war” on the CPP-NPA-NDFP, he said. The NPA is presently active in 70 of the country's 79 provinces.

In the Philippines, the Ecumenical Bishops Forum in the Philippines has come out strongly in favour of the of peace negotiations “to resolve the issues that spawn unrest and civil strife,” in a declaration signed by the co-chairpersons, Most Rev. Deogracias S. Iniguez, Jr. and Bishop Solito K. Toquero. They are joined by other peace advocates such as the Pilgrims for Peace, the Philippine Peace Center, and the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform.

“Our country can attain a just and lasting peace,” Ledesma said, “once the roots of the armed conflict or civil war have been resolved. Concretely, this means ending the control and domination of imperialism over the economy and politics of the Philippines, eliminating feudalism, the system that enslaves the majority of our population, the peasantry, and dismantling what we call bureaucrat capitalism, which we see as the main source of corruption in our society. With these changes, the Philippines can become a truly free, democratic and prosperous country.”

The New People's Army was established in 1969, closely following the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in December 1968. The Bangsa Moro Army was likewise established by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1971.

Rey Claro Casambre, Executive Director of the Philippine Peace Centre, believes that it was no coincidence that both groups launched their armed resistance against the Philippine government at about the same time. “These were the inevitable outcome of the people suffering intolerable poverty, injustice and oppression over the decades,” Casambre said.

Peace talks have been held before between the government and the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Peace accords were actually signed between the Philippine government and the MNLF, but problems in implementation and issues of ancestral domain have seen the conflict continue.

The peace talks between the GRP and NDFP appeared to be back on track in 2001 and 2004 and produced two agreements in Oslo, Norway, before they were suspended, along with the JASIG. Subsequently several members of the NDFP negotiating panel were arrested, assassinated or disappeared.

“The recent announcements that formal talks will resume between the GRP and the NDFP rekindled our hopes,” said Casambre. “However, learning from the past we have no illusions that the talks shall now proceed unimpeded.” He pointed out that the formal or substantive talks have been suspended or frozen for about 11 of the last 14 years, with GRP-MILF talks suffering a similar fate.

“We are intent on getting the peace talks back on track,” said Coni Ledesma. “We (the NDFP) intend to propose to the GRP through the Norwegian government that a preparatory meeting between the two sides with their respective lawyers be held in early September in order to produce a written agreement that reaffirms the JASIG and spells out the methods for complying with its stipulations."

“Of course, it is difficult to achieve a just and lasting peace through the peace negotiations alone,” Ledesma continued. “The fact is the forces against social change in the Philippines use all the coercive instruments of the state including the courts, police and armed forces to perpetuate their rule and suppress the people's demand for a free, democratic and prosperous society.”

“In this situation, we believe the people have the right to use all forms of struggle including legal, parliamentary and militant mass actions as well as armed struggle to defend themselves and advance their interests,” Ledesma said.

“I look forward to meeting with my compatriots and with Canadian citizens as well as elected officials during my trip across Canada,” said Ledesma. “I will ask Canadians to help us get the peace negotiations back on track, and if necessary to put pressure on the Philippine government to help make that happen. For the benefit of the people of the Philippines, but also the people of Canada and the world, we continue to strive for a just and lasting peace in our country.” MG

For interviews with Coni K. Ledesma please contact the Centre for Philippine Concerns at: capcpc@web.ca

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