In my assessment of the peace process during a conference examining the Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) presidency, I gave his administration the grade of 6 out of 10.
Looking back at that event organized by then University of the Philippines president Jose “Pepe” Abueva, since deceased, I concede that it was a stingy grade. It was an evaluator’s typical bias against the incumbent, who, more often than not, is viewed with the critical eye of the moment, devoid of a longer comparative view. For it is only now, at the end of the terms of the four other “post-Marcos” presidents that followed (before we ended up with another Marcos), and at his death, that we can better assess what the Ramos presidency achieved in the area of peace and security, and the kind of leadership that he, “Steady Eddie,” exemplified.
FVR was our first regularly elected president after the 1986 upheaval. From the perspective of comparative democratization studies, this was a positive sign that the democratic transition will somehow continue. It had been an uneasy six years under the unwieldy coalition government of Cory Aquino. Six coup attempts during the first four years of her term dashed hopes of a more significant economic recovery following the negative growth rates left by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Several of these attempted coups put us on the brink of an irregular power takeover, which was averted by military leaders like FVR himself who stayed the course.
Still, we had serious reasons to doubt the caliber and democratic credentials of Ramos. Under his watch, first as Cory’s Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff and then as secretary of national defense, the Army went on war footing even before the 60-day ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front (CPP-NDF) was terminated.
Vigilantes in conflict-ridden areas pillaged and killed with impunity. The Commission on Human Rights, Congress, and human rights groups recorded more than 300 forced disappearances, 146 massacres, 15,900 detentions of suspected rebels, and more than 1,700 extrajudicial killings from March 1986 to 1991. The same counterinsurgency strategies during the Marcos dictatorship, when Ramos was the longstanding chief of the notorious Philippine Constabulary, were employed.
Talks with Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) likewise floundered, as the hawks and conservatives in the Cabinet gained the upper hand and priorities changed.
To the consternation of the liberal forces whose ambition was to institute a functional party system and civilianize politics as part of democratic reforms, Cory anointed FVR, a military man, as her presidential candidate. This, despite the selection of Ramon Mitra as standard-bearer of the then ruling party, Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino.
But to everyone’s surprise, FVR the president made a complete turnaround as soon as he assumed the post. At his first State of the Nation Address in July 1992, he announced that peace and reconciliation would be among his priorities. Thus, from undercutting the peace talks in the previous years, he laid down the foundation for a comprehensive peace strategy across parallel tracks of negotiations with the different armed groups opposing the state.
Ramos brandished the offer of amnesty among his first policy approaches to address the armed conflict. He topped this with the repeal of the 1957 Anti-Subversion Law that criminalized membership in communist and similar organizations. Upon the advice of other groups, including bishops of the Protestant church to which he belonged, he set up the National Unification Commission (NUC), which undertook an unprecedented nationwide consultation on the issues surrounding the armed conflicts.
The NUC produced what eventually became the national peace policy adopted by FVR and the presidents that followed. Called “The Six Paths to Peace,” it provided a set of policy approaches that included pursuit of political, social and economic reforms alongside political negotiations with the armed groups, and longer-term investments toward a culture of peace.
Within FVR’s first 12 months in office, he and his lieutenants led by the likes of Generals Manuel Yan and Alexander Aguirre formally reopened talks with Misuari. In September 1996, the final peace agreement with the MNLF was forged.
Immediately, FVR followed this up with ceasefire negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. An agreement was achieved in record time by January 1997. This is the same ceasefire agreement, with all the subsequent guidelines and terms of reference, that served as the important foundation for the political negotiations to prosper in the next 17 years until the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014.
Negotiations with the military putschists, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement/Soldiers of the Filipino People/Young Officers Union (RAM/SFP/YOU) prospered without much ado. An agreement eventually forged in October 1995 granted amnesty to their members and supporters and extinguished any criminal liability for their past acts.
A Joint Hague Declaration signed in August 1992 reopened formal talks with the CPP-NDF. Five subsequent procedural agreements and the first of four outlined substantive agreements called the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law was accomplished by March 1998, three months before Ramos ended his term.
It was the farthest so far that any president had achieved in talks with this intractable process. Altogether, no other president succeeded in moving peace talks forward with all the major armed groups, all within six years.
FVR’s “Philippines 2000” goal of fast-tracking the country’s entry into the ranks of Asia’s newly industrializing countries by the turn of the century was his administration’s mantra. Toward this end, achieving peace with the armed groups was the important piece. “Peace and development” thus became his buzzword, the conjoining of two interdependent quests.
Moreover, FVR sustained good links with civil society. He organized several “summits” with broad-based participation to provide input on government social and economic policies. He made himself accessible to the media. He always had this “let’s do it” disposition. Indeed, the needed political will and industry, and a healthy sense of humor to boot, were manifest during his term.
His administration was not devoid of corruption issues or controversies; nonetheless, it was less tainted by the megascandals that rocked most of the terms of the presidents that followed.
As we know now, the Asian crisis that struck the region in 1997 and brought down economies made the 2000 vision unattainable. Things turned for the worse, moreover, with the policy reversals of the succeeding president, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, whose profligacy and cronyism and eventual ouster through irregular means set the Philippines back economically and politically, farther away from democratic consolidation.
From Estrada to the nine controversial years of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to the relative stability under Benigno Aquino III, to the six years of unorthodox and deadly administration of Rodrigo Duterte, and finally to the return of the Marcoses through their scion, it has been a roller-coaster ride for all of us—mostly downhill. This is why the loss of “Steady Eddie” steering the state toward peace and development could not but make one sentimental.
Miriam Coronel Ferrer is a civil society peace advocate. She chaired the government negotiating panel for talks with the MILF under President Benigno Aquino III during which the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed. —Ed.