Before Rodrigo Duterte was elected president, he promised to end the Maoist-led insurgency that has stunted economic growth in the country’s resource-rich but poor regions for decades, and killed more than 40,000 people.

But he wanted a more peaceful political settlement of the rebellion caused by injustice, inequality, ignorance, neglect, discrimination and poverty, repeatedly declaring in election campaign speeches he did not want Filipinos killing each other.

As a long-time mayor of Davao City, he has befriended the communists to keep the southern city free of violence from the New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas, recruiting some rebels to join the city government, including a former Catholic priest who became one of his closest political strategists and advisers.

When he was elected to office, he unabashedly declared himself as the first-ever socialist to be voted president of the Republic, vowing to end corruption, crime and illegal drugs.

He re-started peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF), political arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and for the first time, left-wing members of the House of Representatives and leaders of cause-oriented groups set foot on the country’s seat of power – Malacañan Palace on the banks of Pasig River in Manila.

His first State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) in July 2016 was the first a protest-free event since the post-Marcos period, and he even went out of Batasang Pambansa halls to address the cheering crowd, boosting hopes for a final and enduring peace agreement with the rebels.

“You know, we are not enemies,” the president had repeatedly said in speeches. “Even if I want to fight, my heart tells me that I am killing my fellow Filipinos. I want to talk peace with you.”

But he has closed that peace-building chapter in his presidency. Those words do not hold water anymore after he unsheathed the sword of war last year, issuing Executive Order 70, a new approach to end five decades of protracted guerrilla warfare in the rural communities.

The executive order has institutionalized the “whole-of-nation” approach in attaining inclusive and sustainable peace. It formed a national task force to end local communist armed conflicts and called for a national peace framework.

However, a year after the task force was created, the civilian sector’s plan of action was hardly felt. The military side’s role was more pronounced as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has re-structured its operating units and formed task forces to end local communist armed conflicts (TF ELCAC).

Military combat operations have intensified as ground and air units unleashed firepower, dropped aerial bombs, fired rockets and pounded howitzer and mortar shells on suspected guerrilla bases in the countryside.

Past presidents since Corazon Aquino in 1986 had prohibited the air force from deliberately bombing rural communities, dropping 250-pound and 500-pound ordnances or shelling rebel positions with 105-mm howitzers.

However, these tactics were carried out openly in fighting Muslim rebels, particularly the pro-Islamic State militant groups that had occupied Marawi City in Lanao del Sur for about five months two years ago.

The aerial bombings in Marawi were brutal as shown by the death and destruction wrought, as the air force had no advanced technology and equipment to deliver the bombs with precision and accuracy. Some of the bombs did not explode, posing more danger to people on the ground after the end of the conflict.

Soldiers have also descended into remote and isolated communities, closing down schools for indigenous peoples, which they had suspected as recruitment grounds for NPA by teaching children to hate and fight the government.

EO 70 has only heightened the government’s iron-fisted approach in ending insurgency instead of focusing on the more enduring solution, like the delivery of social and economic development to eventually remove the root causes of insurgency.

On paper, EO 70 is a very sound policy to address Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency. But implementation may be less than wholistic as violence appeared to have increased in the countryside.

Six soldiers were killed and 20 others were wounded in Eastern Samar in a recent clash between government troops and Maoist-led guerrillas who detonated improvised explosive devices. The 30-minute gun battle came weeks after air force planes dropped bombs on a rebel camp in Northern Samar.

It was a brutal response to a brutal act. This madness has to stop. Killing fellow Filipinos will not address the insurgency. It would only serve to alienate the people from government in general and the military in particular, which has a sworn duty to serve and protect its citizens.

Duterte must learn from the experiences of the late president Ferdinand Marcos who had favored a military solution in the 1970s. From a ragtag, ill-equipped peasant army, the NPA grew to a 25,000-member force by the time he was ousted from power in a nearly bloodless civilian backed-military coup in 1986.

The military has been claiming victory over the communists, boasting it had reduced the rebels’ strength to about 3,000 members and declaring many provinces to be insurgency-free.

But, in a recent military report trumpeting its accomplishments, it said it had “neutralized” about 12,000 rebels and supporters. It had failed to achieve a strategic victory over the communists despite its superior firepower, logistics and manpower.

By intensifying military action, the government is creating more enemies. It is not winning the hearts and minds of the people rebelling against government. And it is draining resources that should be channeled to more productive social and economic projects that could improve the lives of ordinary people, give them more hope and probably abandon taking up arms.

Fidel Ramos is the first military professional, a former general, to become president in 1992. But he did not believe in a military solution to address the insurgency. He focused on social services and economic development, cutting the country’s poverty incidence and reducing the number of rebels. He pushed peace talks with all anti-government forces – the fractured Left, the mutinous Right and Muslims.

The president must learn from the mistakes of Ferdinand Marcos and adopt the best practices of Fidel Ramos. He should re-assess the implementation of EO 70 and tweak the delivery of social, political and economic reforms, not drop bombs in the countryside.

(Photo from NDF website)