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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A Letter from Cobbie and Dessa Palm, serving in the Philippines

September 2018

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11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Cor 13:11)

Helping to facilitate the peace talks to bring a 50-year-old war in the Philippines to a mutually acceptable settlement between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), who envision society with a socialist perspective, and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), who stand to defend the status quo, is to navigate through a maze of possibilities, setbacks, achievements, and disruptions.

At no other time in the long journey of the peace talks have we witnessed such unprecedented possibilities and achievements suddenly turn into such extreme setbacks than in the two years of the present administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

The peace talks between the GRP and NDFP are formally facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government, who in turn recognize the potential of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines to become an integral part of the peace process by serving as advocates and educators in building up a peace constituency to appreciate and ultimately unite in the call for the peace talks to continue and succeed. The instrument created to make this possible was launched in 2007 and named the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP). In the years since 2007, I have witnessed and facilitated numerous peace workshops from the north to the south of the Philippines as a Peace Educator for PEPP.

The election of a new president in 2016 brought hope for the peace talks that had been stalled for several years. During his first State of the Nation Address, the new president declared to the country that the peace talks would be a priority of his administration. He put meaning to his words by convening a new government panel of negotiators and inviting representatives of the NDFP to visit and dialogue with him in the Presidential Palace. Then, later that year, when it came time to hold the first formal peace talks under his administration, he granted the release of 19 political consultants from their jail cells, and all were granted passports and visas to partake in the peace talks in Norway. With the consultants present, committees could be convened as Reciprocal Working Committees (RWCs) to work simultaneously on different areas of the peace talk agenda to accelerate the pace and process of the talks.

The Philippines grew excited and hopeful about peace, and I found myself with more invitations to speak and lead workshops on peace than I could meet. Civic groups, schools and churches were all wanting to know more about the peace talks, and the images in the media of leaders and negotiators from opposing ends of the table standing up to embrace each other and stand side by side was heartwarming to all. Finally, I thought, this would be the atmosphere and step forward that will lead all the way to signing a final peace agreement.

But new circumstances overtook this atmosphere of peace and possibility. In May 2017, an ISIS-inspired group led a violent uprising and occupied the city of Marawi in Mindanao. In response, the president declared martial law throughout Mindanao and unleashed the full force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to recapture the city of Marawi. Peace talks were suddenly in peril as the NDFP grew alarmed at the president having placed the whole island of Mindanao under martial law when the uprising was contained to only one city. The NDFP declared that there were other motives in extending martial law to include the whole of Mindanao and that they would take punitive action toward the government and call upon the people to denounce this enforcement of martial law on the whole island. Angered by the NDFP’s pronouncement, the president called off the peace talks without dialogue.

The war to recapture Marawi City waged on for six months, and when it was over, the president was jubilant about the military success. The media was alive with images of the president declaring the liberation of Marawi City, surrounded by the military generals and celebrating with soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

With this military success, many of us in the Peace Movement began to witness a change in the government’s policy toward the peace talks. There was the apparent return to the persuasion that with enough money and support given to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, this 50-year-old conflict could be won by war and not by the peace talks. As in the military’s successful recapturing of the city of Marawi, there was a return to the misleading hypothesis that war could defeat, end and resolve this conflict with the NDFP — notwithstanding the fact that the influence of the NDFP goes far beyond the confines of one city, and war alone will not address the root causes of the conflict.

This old mindset was a step backward that was a disruption to the atmosphere of peace. Efforts were made to reach the president, to talk him back to the negotiating table, but it was apparent that a different voice and persuasion had his ear and his trust after the achievement in Marawi.

In the weeks that followed, there were further steps backward, culminating with the signing of Proclamation 374 in December 2017, which designated the party across the negotiating table as a “terrorist organization.” The news was heartbreaking, and once again violent skirmishes erupted in the countryside. Individuals with any ties or even perceived ties with the NDFP found themselves in danger of being labeled a terrorist and an enemy of the state.

Such are the times we have stepped back into, and there are moments when it is easy to give up. At a recent workshop on the peace process, I was feeling exhausted after presenting the sad present state of the peace talks, when the newly elected bishop of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Bishop Ligaya F. San Francisco, began to speak. She said, “We are a people of the Church, and as a people of the Church, we walk by faith and not by sight.” As the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “there will be times that we may not see the possibility, times when our sight is blurred by bad circumstances, but we must not lose faith in the possibility that one day we will return to the table and peace will reign in our land because we walk by faith and not by sight.”

Those words inspired all of us, and we marched on through the workshop making a commitment to continue to educate and live in the faith that the peace our Bible calls us to seek will indeed one day reign throughout the land. The inspiration to carry on in these difficult times also comes from you and your prayers and support to the ministry of peace that we undertake day in and day out here in the Philippines. Our presence in this peace process depends on your generous support of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and of our ministry. We are your humble arms extended across the world. Let’s do this together.

Cobbie and Dessa Palm

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