SOMEONE ELSE'S WINDOWS: Grasping Gazmin by H. Marcos C. Mordeno

MALAYBALAY CITY — Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin spoke too much too soon when he bared his mind on how the fledgling Aquino government should conduct peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army. Betraying arrogance combined with myopia, Gazmin declared there would be no resumption of talks if the rebel group refuses to lay down their arms. And, echoing the worn-out line that [peace talks] should anchor on the Constitution as the framework, he is in effect discouraging the other party from returning to the negotiating table.

It does not take a genius to understand the stupidity of demanding surrender as a precondition to peace negotiation. What’s the point of negotiating with an enemy who has laid down his arms? The government wants to talk peace precisely because it recognizes the rebel group as a force to reckon with even if it is incapable of seizing political power [at this stage], although public pressure in favor of peaceful means in resolving the armed conflict should get the bigger credit.

Furthermore, by insisting on the Constitution as the “non-negotiable” framework [of the talks], Gazmin sought to preempt the President or the negotiating panel he would form in defining the substance of negotiations. Maybe the panel will think beyond the limits of the Constitution. Maybe it won’t. But that isn’t the point. The point is to give the President and his chosen negotiators a leeway to respond to the situation as it unfolds and worry about legal questions later. One should keep in mind that peace negotiations are essentially political undertakings, an important element which former senator Manuel Roxas II and former Cotabato governor Emmanuel Pinol failed or blatantly refused to comprehend in the case of the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Was Gazmin simply stating a personal viewpoint or was he giving the public a hint of the defense department’s possible game plan vis-a-vis the decades-old armed movement which they will propose to Malacanang? Given his military background, the secretary’s declaration could just be ignored as a casual expression of angst at having to confront again the same enemy that the institution to which he belonged has failed to defeat. After all, President Benigno Aquino III is yet to spell out his administration’s framework in dealing with the rebel groups.

But there is also reason to believe Gazmin’s statement was anything but random. It is possible that this early the defense department and the key generals have presented to the President an operational plan to end the communist-led insurgency, as Gazmin won’t find it hard for himself to fit into the military’s psyche and ways of doing things. So whatever framework Aquino will eventually adopt will likely reflect the strategic goals of the armed forces. The only thing that remains to be done is couch such framework in a language that will make it widely acceptable and sound sincere towards the attainment of lasting peace.

Also note that in today’s newspaper reports the military said it aims to beat the NPA in three years time “with human rights at the forefront”. The statement does sound self-contradictory and disturbing. Imposing a deadline implies intensifying counterinsurgency operations to a particular level, and as the experience under former president Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya showed, it placed human rights at the center of things only because these were grossly ignored and violated. Worse, the government, employing faceless assassins, expanded the arena of combat to include activists of the legal Left.

There are signs the habit of murdering activists has not gone with Arroyo. For barely a week into the Aquino administration another militant was gunned down in Aklan. Like in Arroyo’s time, the military concluded posthaste that it was a fruit of a purge inside the Left.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima will have her hands full in the coming days.