Building peace requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone

By Kristian Herbolzheimer


[Foreword to the new June 2022 book How do you solve a problem like the GRP-NDFP peace process? Part 2 by Soliman M. Santos, Jr.]


The Maoists have been waging a protracted people’s war in the Philippines over the past 53 years. There is no indication they have achieved any significant military or political gains through this approach. On the other hand the military claim, time and again, they are about to eradicate the terrorist threat of communist insurgency. And yet the insurgency remains, expressing a significant social, political and military resilience. The country is thus stuck in a power struggle between warring forces that still put more faith on the barrel of the guns (a Maoist term which the Armed Forces of the Philippines seem to share) than in political dialogue with their adversaries. In the meantime, the structural problems of social injustice and weak democratic institutions remain or even deteriorate further.


Paradoxically, all Presidents in the Philippines since 1986 have entered into peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF). After some positive developments under general Ramos’ administration (1992-1998), on-off negotiations did not produce any results for twenty years, until the early days of the Duterte government, when parties agreed on ceasefires and to fast-track the negotiating agenda. Duterte even appointed people close to the revolutionaries in his cabinet. However, this initial sweet moment did not last very long and soon the confidence-building measures gave way to new and worsened blame games and resumption of military confrontation.


The Philippines is thus suffering one of the most protracted armed conflicts in the world and there is no indication this dynamic will change in the near future. It is indeed difficult to imagine how this situation could ever change; how people concerned with peace and social justice could organise to change this seemingly endless draw.


In this regard it might be interesting to review how other armed conflicts have terminated over these past decades. Based on such observation we can conclude that:


• Armed insurgency rarely leads to victory. Exceptions include high-intensity and highly internationalised wars of independence or expelling occupying forces, such as happened in Kosovo (2008) and Afghanistan (2021).


• Military victory is also rare and, most often, linked to massive human rights violations and and/or new forms of violence (Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Iraq, Syria).


• Peace agreements are more frequent. In some cases they have led to dramatic political changes, with former insurgents taking on positions in government (South Africa, Northern Ireland, Timor Leste, Nepal).


However, peace agreements are not a panacea. Peace does not trickle down from a piece of paper. In the best-case scenario, they put an end to direct violence; but they are often unable to address the structural social, economic and political problems, no matter how just and well drafted the provisions. There is thus a need to nuance our expectations in regards to peace agreements and to better understand the diversity of players, the agenda, the processes and the time-frames required to make change happen.


The peacebuilding experience over the past decades also tells us that peace processes need to be locally framed, owned and led. There is no recipe. International law, the universal human rights framework and foreign diplomats and civil society organisation may provide relevant guidelines and support. But each context needs to identify what will work best for them, and conflict-affected people need to perceive that change is in their hands instead of something that is imposed from outside or above.


Many argue that making war is easier than making peace. Indeed, peacebuilding requires serious efforts to understand the conflict dynamics, the local and international tools available to address the conflict, solid theoretical and practical experience, and the ability to communicate across conflict-divides.


Sol Santos, the author of the publication you are reading, is one of these few persons that combine analytical capacity, creativity and perseverance. A staunch and relentless peace advocate, human rights activist, scholar and practitioner, internationalist and proud Filipino, Sol has never given up to seek to contribute to a peace process between the Government and the Maoist insurgency.


This publication compiles his reflections over the past 18 years. Some of them he had published. Others he simply shared with a circle of fellow peace advocates and the parties to the conflict. In reading his articles you will encounter an open-minded, creative and independent thinker. A rare attribute in a context of deep polarisation, of “us versus them” thinking. His appeals for ceasefires and resumption of peace talks are all grounded in national and international law, as well as customary Filipino culture and tradition.


Sol has no problem in pointing to what is wrong, whether the killing of the Absalon brothers by an NPA-activated explosive, or the killing of elderly and sick natdem militants by the police. But he does not stop at these tragedies; he does not look back to blame the perpetrators: he looks forward to prevent further loss of lives, whether innocent civilians or also combatants.


Sol’s writing may be uncomfortable for some because he does not follow mainstream narratives. But then, as I learned from a group of Filipino and Colombian women peace advocates, building peace requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. For anyone willing and able to take such steps, this publication provides insights and guidance for ways to bring lasting peace to the Philippines.

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Kristian Herbolzheimer is Director, International Catalan Institute of Peace ICIP, and a former member of the International Contact Group on Mindanao, assisting peace talks between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.