OSLO, Norway – For a moment, it was as if the two sides were no longer at war.
They arrived in barong tagalog, both panels representing the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) and featuring hardcore guerrillas who have presided over Asia’s most stubborn insurgency.
The euphoria is palpable at the opening of peace negotiations in Oslo on Monday, August 22.
Senior communist rebels were all smiles – hugging each other and celebrating the presence of their comrades from prison and the underground. Among them are biggest names in the movement based on military records – Benito Tiamzon, Alan Jazmines, and Rafael Baylosis.
“What I’m most happy about is the release of the NDFP consultants. I haven’t seen them for decades. Now they are suddenly out in the wide world from their confinements, from their small cells. Now they are here to be harnessed for work for the peace negotiations,” Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison told Rappler. (READ: Joma Sison, Tiamzons reunited after 30 years)
The venue couldn’t be more appropriate for the task this week of the two warring sides – a room called Nobel in a hilltop hotel overlooking the Scandinavian capital.
The revolutionaries were seated on the right side of the room while the government officials were seated on the left. They crossed the room to take photos together before the program started, in a show of familarity born from their involvement in previous peace negotiations.
Sison, Tiamzon and the rest clenched their fists upwards while the government representatives clenched their first forward, the campaign symbol of President Rodrigo Duterte in the May 2016 elections. “Pareho naman pala tayo e. Clenched fist. (We’re the same, you see. We clench our fists.),” was repeatedly heard in the room.
In the middle of the room were representatives of the Norwegian government that has supported the talks – Foreign Minister Borge Brende and Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process Ambassador Elisabeth Slattum – and who were glad that the negotiations have resumed since the impasse in 2011.
“You’ve seen the warmth and the exchanges, informal and formal on both sides. Let that be assessed by you and by those who are able to witness the atmosphere that prevailed during the opening,” said presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza.
Formed more than 4 decades ago, the CPP is behind a protracted war that has survived Martial Law in the 1970s, the 1986 EDSA revolution that isolated the guerrillas, a bloody internal purge in the 1990s, and the bitter split that followed.
Five post-Marcos presidents attemped to talk peace with the rebels, holding a total of 40 rounds of negotiations with them. All failed. (READ: Fast Facts: The CPP-NPA-NDF and the Oslo talks)
The Duterte-led negotiations promise to be different. (READ: #AnimatED: Hope in Oslo)
Joma all praises
Sison was all praises for President Duterte, his former student in the 1970s.
“For the first time in the history of the Philippines, a president has emerged by denouncing the abuses of the oligarchy and the folly of servility to foreign powers and by using street language and methods of the mass movement,” Sison said in his opening speech.
It was a welcome change in tone following a heated verbal exchange with the President following the CPP’s failure to reciprocate the first ceasefire that Duterte had announced in his first State of the Nation Address. This raised fears that all the confidence-building measures done prior to this – such as the appointment of NDF allies to the Cabinet – would be put to waste.
The warrior is now a peace negotiator
What makes this different is the participation of key CPP leaders from the Philippines.
It’s the first time for Tiamzon to join the peace negotiations.
He was tagged as the “center of gravity” of the CPP’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), whose face was unknown to many – including the NPA rebels – until he and his wife were arrested in Cebu in 2015.
Tiamzon’s new role as peace negotiator is a task completely different from the decades he had spent plotting and staging a revolution. He watched the formal process from a seat behind panel members, moved from one photo session or media interview after another.
“I was in high school when I last wore a barong,” a smiling Tiamzon told comrades who were happy to see him and his wife Wilma, also a top CPP-NPA personality, finally free again. (Read: Tiamzon: Writer, organizer, party man)
But the couple were also feeling the burden of the responsibility. “Noon pa lamang sa Maynila, pumapasok na sa isip ko kung paano talaga kami lulugar dito sa usapang pangkapayapaan (When we were still in Manila, it crossed my mind how we’re going to find our place in the peace talks),” Wilma Tiamzon told Rappler after the ceremonies.
“Ibang-iba (It’s really different),” Benito chimed in.
How will the “ground” feel about their participation in the peace talks?
“Palagay ko matutuwa sila. Unang-una, nakalahok kami dito at naging dahilan ng aming kagyat na paglaya. Marami ang naghihintay at tuwang tuwa na kami ay nakalaya na. Umaasa sila na ang paglahok namin dito ay magiging positibo para sa rebolusyunaryong kilusan,” Wilma said. (We think they’re happy about it. We’re now involved and this is the reason for our release. Many have been waiting for our release. They are hoping for a positive outcome.)
“Ang nakikibakang masa ang puno at ang siyang magiging dulo ng lahat ng pag-uusap dito,” added Benito Tiamzon. (The struggling masses are why we’re in this process, and they will also determine its outcome.)
Tiamzon’s involvement addresses an issue that was raised in previous attempts to talk peace: that it is useless to talk peace with Sison alone because of doubts that the exiled CPP founder still controls the combatants on the ground.
Former government chief peace negotiator Alex Padilla said Tiamzon was the hardliner who was behind the difficult preconditions to the talks (READ: Joma wants peace, the ground doesn’t)
Government chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III, who is an old hand at the job, is confident that Tiamzon’s participation is key to the success of the peace talks that they seek to finish within a year. (READ: PH hopes for peace deal in a year)
“It is an opportunity for them to have a wider consultation. Hopefully, it could give them a clearer view of the situation,” Bello said.
“For the panel, and even for our President, the fact that we are determined to talk to them is clear indication that our intel community considers them as the right group to talk to. Otherwise, it will be senseless coming here,” Bello said.
It won’t be easy.
There are agendas to push forward when the two panels sit down beginning Tuesday, August 23.
“The road to peace is not easy and rosy, considering the long history of animosity, suspicion and armed conflict that troubled our land. Let us all stay the course no matter what,” Dureza said in his opening statement. – Rappler.com