MANILA, Philippines – Communist guerrillas said on Monday, February 6, they are rejecting President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to scrap the peace talks and will work to explore the possibility of reopening negotiations.
They reiterated willingness to silence their guns again through a more stable bilateral ceasefire agreement as the peace panels discuss their key reform proposals and the release of political prisoners.
"The offices of the Negotiating Panel of the NDFP shall remain open to continue to explore the possibility of reopening peace negotiations with the Duterte government, both on the CASER as well as on the matter of a bilateral ceasefire simultaneous with release of political prisoners," the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said in a statement.
The communist New People's Army (NPA) terminated its unilateral ceasefire last week but argued then that talks should continue even as fighting resumes on the ground.
Senators and tribal groups based in areas affected by the conflict have also joined calls for the continuation of talks, fearful of the resumption of violence on the ground.
The National Democratic Front (NDF) is the political wing of the communist movement which represents the rebels in peace talks with the government. The CPP said they are still looking forward to the scheduled February meeting in The Netherlands.
The CPP statement came on the same day that one of the communist leaders released last year for the talks was held at a checkpoint in Davao. The President earlier said the released rebels should go back to jail, but the NDF said the order has no legal basis for now. (READ: NDF: No basis to arrest released communist rebels)
Government chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III said there remains an "opening," citing Duterte's pronouncements that he may still change his mind about scrapping the talks if there is a "compelling reason" to do so.
"Mayroon naman siyang (He mentioned a) collatilla. If there is a compelling reason, [he may change his mind.] That is an opening," said Bello in a phone interview.
What could a compelling reason be? The government's chief negotiator said he will not speculate.
"What is compelling to him, I don't want to speculate on that. What I can assure you is he really wants peace for the country," Bello said.
The CPP called on the public to push for the continuation of talks.
"They must demonstrate that there is no more 'compelling reason' than the growing clamor for justice and just peace," it said.
Grand gesture from NDF needed
Former Ateneo School of Government Dean Antonio La Viña said the public should wait for Malacañang to define what Duterte meant when he said he is scrapping the talks. Is he merely suspending it? Or is he also abrogating agreements made under previous administrations?
La Viña said the current situation may require a "grand gesture" on the part of the communists in order to change Duterte's mind.
"To solve the impasse, the NDF may have to give this early one big concession," he added.
La Viña said it is also important that both the military and the New People's Army (NPA) reinstate a ceasefire through a joint deal that will establish monitoring mechanisms. He acknowledged that this will take tiime.
He said it is difficult to advance the peace talks when there is fighting because deaths will be a setback to any progress they may make on the negotiating table.
If the NDF is going to press for the release of the political prisoners before a final peace deal, La Viña said they will have to give more.
"If their condition is release of prisoners, they must do something reciprocal as well. A ceasefire does not favor any party and is good for both. It's not a concession of the NDF in exchange for the concession of a ceasefire. That is asymmetrical," he said.
Senators, civil society groups support talks
Senators also called for the continuation of the talks, joining local politicians and tribal groups based in areas affected by the conflict.
The President's party mate, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, said talks could still continue. "I hope that the suspension of the peace talks is also temporary and will be resumed in due time," he said in ambush interview on Monday.
Senator Ralph Recto said both sides should understand that peace talks remain the best way to end the insurgency that has plagued the country for nearly 5 decades.
"It is perhaps time to be reminded of lessons from an insurgency which has lasted almost half a century. One is for government to realize that guns alone will not defeat an insurgency with deeply rooted social causes. And rebels must explore the prospect that more concessions can be won on the negotiating table than on the battlefield," Recto said.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said the communists should "surrender" the rebels who allegedly used 76 bullets to kill 3 soldiers in Bukidnon, the incident that reportedly triggered Duterte to terminate the government ceasefire.
"While peace is the ultimate goal, parties must come to the table in good faith. Only then can we end this conflict and, finally, build a path toward prosperity for our poor countrymen," Aquino said.
Tribal groups in Northern Luzon and Mindanao are afraid of the resumption of violence.
"Even if the 6-month ceasefire was unilateral by either side, it managed to bring relative peace to our communities. This, we wish to make permanent through a bilateral ceasefire and the eventual signing of a peace agreement," said the Manguangan, Dibabawon, and Mandaya tribes in a joint statement.
The Northern Luzon Peace Network expressed the same fears. "We are fearful now of the violence that will revisit many communities in Mindanao, Northern Luzon, and elsewhere, particularly those occupied by indigenous peoples. We are afraid of innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire between the government and rebel forces," it said in a statement.
Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Oscar Moreno, head of Region 10’s Peace and Order Council, said he was saddened by the developments.
“We all should never forget that insurgency has grown because of the inability or failure of the government to bring basic services to our people especially those who need these services the most,” Moreno said.
Moreno won the prestigious Galing Pook Award for effectively addressing communist insurgency in Misamis Oriental where he used to serve as governor. He was credited for successfully transforming a conflict area – Sitio Lantad in Barangay Kibanban – into a farming community where former rebels have taken the helm of a cooperative.
"The most effective way tool to combat insurgency is to bring the government closer to the people,” Moreno said.
Misamis Oriental Governor Yevgeny Emano is also concerned that the resumption of violence would affect their economic gains. “I fear that my tourism programs will be affected, aside from that, the people’s livelihood will be affected and they will be displaced again,” Emano said.
Bilateral ceasefire agreement
Duterte scrapped the talks after the NPA terminated its ceasefire. He slammed the killing of soldiers while the ceasefire was still in place.
But the CPP lamented how Duterte is "favoring" the military and the police.
"Duterte echoed the exaggerated anger of the AFP over the outbreak of successive armed skirmishes between the New People's Army and the AFP resulting in the death of 6 AFP troops since the end of January," the CPP said.
"He glosses over the fact that it was he and the AFP hierarchy that have ordered the forward deployment of armed troops in the guerrilla zones and bases of the NPA to occupy barrios in the guise of 'peace and order', 'delivery of social services', and other pretexts, and to sow fear and intimidation among the people and carry out armed offensive operations despite the reciprocal declarations of unilateral ceasefire," the CPP added.
The military and the NPA were able to hold separate unilateral ceasefires for a period of 5 months. But the situation grew untenable because both camps accused each other of abusing the ceasefires.
The communists pushed for a scenario where talking will continue even as fighting resumes on the ground. While this was done in past administrations, the government panel noted how talks have collapsed because of encounters in the field.
The government has aggressively pushed for a bilateral ceasefire agreement that will put in place common rules for the military and the NPA. – with a report from Bobby Lagsa/Rappler.com