Flags and Banners: Peace Negotiators’ Dilemma


The need to communicate makes it easy for parties to paint themselves in a corner and makes it more difficult to achieve an agreement. From my point of view, there is no bad faith or ill intent. The parties earnestly want an agreement. The fault lies in the structure and mechanics of traditional negotiations – the conditions of secrecy and the lack of constant, day-to-day communication. Let me explain.

In the days of old, warring armies have their standards and these standards or banners have both symbolic and practical value. Standards define the territory or portion of the territory that is said to be under their control. Standards also tell the combatants where to regroup in case they are scattered. The armies look up to the standards – if the standard advances, they advance. If however the standard retreats, they retreat. The capture of the standard means surrender and defeat. One of the more important functions of a standard is to tell sympathizers how the battle is being fought and that they are winning.


Present-day peace negotiations, including the ones with the MILF and the CPP-NPA-NDF, are no different. They may look different – there is no blood and gore, no knights in shining armor battling with each other, no colorful standards – but they are of the same mold. The weapons now, instead of swords and spears, are words, argument and pressure. Because of the dominant idea in negotiations that secrecy is needed, the “battle” has now a limited set of “combatants” – negotiators, consultants and technical staff. However, there is a need for the “combatants” to telegraph, to tell its supporters and sympathizers, what’s happening inside the negotiations battle. They need to communicate how they are “not yielding any ground”, how they are “winning” and how people should not worry because the combatants remain committed to their goals and to the instructions of their “principals”. They need to assuage and build the confidence of their larger publics that everything is going according to the original plan. This communication is needed for continuing support and confidence of the bigger public. In short, while in the past the form was in actual “standards” fluttering in the battlefields, now the standards are in form of banner statements in mass and new media, e.g. MindaNews, Philippine Daily Inquirer or Star or ABS CBN or GMA or through their websites. Thus, the need for secrecy in negotiations leads to the need to issue sweeping, banner statements to telegraph what’s happening inside the negotiations to the bigger public.

Lack of Constant Communication.

Intermittent meetings also characterize present-day negotiations. Since the meetings are almost “diplomatic” in nature, the parties do not talk to each other constantly. They talk only during the formal meetings. Parties, and with good reasons behind it, want to talk only in the presence of the facilitator and in a meeting called for such purpose. Thus, while the problems on the ground arise on a day-to-day basis, the parties talk only once a month or every 2 months. If the parties talk only once a month, where do they get information about what the other party is thinking or doing in the meantime? Most probably in the website of the other party and in the banner statements that captured the interest of mass media. And what do they read in these banner statements? That the other side’s position is fixed, hard and unchanging – matters which are meant for public consumption and not for negotiations. Will the negotiators on the other side react strongly to these banner statements? You bet. They have no choice. Otherwise their own publics would think that they are being defeated or that they have lost the battle. Would the negotiators of the other side take the banner statements as public statements and therefore harmless as far as the negotiations are concerned? Most probably not. There lies the problem. Public banner statements are now part of the “private”, i.e. secret and confidential, negotiations.


It is clear that negotiators need to communicate to at least to 2 publics – the larger public and to each other. They need to communicate to the larger public that they are winning the fight, that their positions are fixed and that there is no surrendering their standards and yet, at the same time, they need to communicate to the other side other that their standards are neither fixed nor rigid and that somehow an agreement can be obtained. The dilemma for negotiators is clear: they need to inform their larger publics and principals that their positions are fixed, unchanging and they will never surrender the standards and yet, they need to communicate to each other that somehow their positions are not fixed, malleable and can be changed. But how can you do this today? In the days of old, this 2 type of communication, i.e. one for public consumption and another for negotiations, is easy. However in this age of cellphones, Internet, Facebook, yahoogroups, etc., you cannot control or limit access to any communication anymore. There are no more insiders or outsiders. Communication is accessible to everyone.

(Next: Designing a Way Out of the Dilemma)

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