MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte's last-minute call on Sunday, April 2, to government negotiators already preparing to reopen talks with communist rebels in the Netherlands led to the curious postponement of the opening ceremony for one day.
Government chief negotiator Secretary Silvestre Bello III apologized to Filipinos who came to witness the opening ceremony in the town of Noordwijk. But he did not divulge Duterte's instructions, according to reports coming from the Netherlands.
Bello said the government negotiators will have to discuss the President's instructions with their counterparts in the National Democratic Front (NDF), the group representing the rebels.
NDF chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili also apologized to the Filipino guests. "Some things happened that we did not expect," he said.
The two panels met Sunday afternoon to fix the agenda of the talks. They agreed to hold the opening ceremony on Monday morning instead, April 3.
Talks aimed at ending Asia's longest-running communist insurgency were scheduled to reopen against the backdrop of clashes and the bitter word war between the military and the communist armed wing New People's Army (NPA). Both sides have accused each other of alleged human rights violations and of spoiling the peace talks.
On Saturday, April 1, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana tagged the NPA as "terrorists." On Sunday, Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Año echoed Lorenzana's statement.
The military and the NPA were expected to reinstate unilateral ceasefire declarations before the talks, but Bello on Friday, March 31, said there was "no reason" to make those declarations.
It was a departure from the commitment that both parties made during the backchannel talks last month.
Bello said Duterte insisted on a more stable joint ceasefire that will put in place common rules for the military and the NPA.
The President's new instructions came after he met with his generals for a command conference last Friday.
Malacañang on Saturday also reiterated Duterte's conditions to the NPA, including demands for the group to stop collecting revolutionary taxes. (READ: Duterte affirms conditions 2 weeks before NDF talks resume)