For nearly 25 years, communist guerrillas operating in the jungles of the Philippines have fought against both autocratic and democratic governments of the island nation. But one of the world's last active Marxist insurgencies may be coming to an end if peace talks can be arranged.
That would be a welcome respite for a country that has enough serious problems of poverty, economic development and political stability without the destruction and loss of life caused by the long-running rebellion.Philippine government officials and rebel leaders have been meeting in the Netherlands to work out arrangements for negotiations. Last week they created a special commission to work out a general amnesty not only for left-wing guerrillas, but also for right-wing rebels and Muslim separatists who have fought against the government.
The Philippine Congress followed with passage of a bill legalizing the outlawed Communist Party. Giving the communists legal status will hardly make them a political threat and may even weaken their appeal to radical students and others captivated by the idea of rebellion.
Efforts were made in 1987 to hold peace talks, but the negotiations broke down over rebel demands for power-sharing and a 60-day cease-fire was repeatedly violated by both sides.
This time around, there is more of a sense of reality among the rebels. First, the fall of communism in most of the world has disillusioned the guerrillas and cost them some of their outside aid. Second, the rise of democracy in the Philippines has reduced the flow of recruits from university campuses. Third, rebel forces have suffered some serious military defeats. Fourth, the closure of U.S. military bases and the departure of most Americans has removed one of the most consistent rebel demands. Finally, there has been a lot of internal conflict among the guerrillas themselves.
The result of all these factors has been a dramatic drop in the number of rebels. The National Democratic front, an umbrella guerrilla organization for some 13 groups, has seen its membership fall from 25,000 in 1987 to just over 12,500, according to the Philippine military.
At this point, the weakened rebels are no longer demanding a role in government. Their proposals include drafting a negotiating agenda for dealing with the poverty and social injustice that gave rise to the various insurgencies in the first place.
All of this does not mean that peace is automatic. The new president of the Philippines is Fidel Ramos, a former military chief of staff who vigorously opposed concessions to the guerrillas in 1987. But the military seems less hostile this time around and Ramos is working from the perspective as a national leader, rather than as a soldier.
Agreement won't come easy, but there is new hope on all sides that the sporadic fighting finally will end. At least all sides are meeting face to face and trying to find solutions. That's a vast improvement over attempts to shoot each other.