The generals’ coup in 2018: Duterte breaks up with Reds

Carmela Fonbuena

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The military elbows the communists out of government, and turns the President who once called himself leftist into becoming the rebels' worst enemy

MANILA, Philippines – This is how the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) commemorates its 50th year anniversary on Wednesday, December 26: no holiday truce with the military and no hope for resumed talks with the government it once supported.

What has changed?

In 2016, the hawks in the military weren’t too happy when President Rodrigo Duterte set up his Cabinet and entrusted a few of posts to leftists.

The former mayor who kept his city safe by befriending communist guerrillas managed to get their full backing when he campaigned for the presidency, and in the early years of his administration. In exchange, Duterte promised land reform and an independent foreign policy. He freed detained high-ranking rebel leaders even as he visited military camps to persuade generals and soldiers to support the peace process he had initiated with the movement.

“I am the president belonging to the Left,” Duterte said on December 13, 2016, on the 5th month of an unprecedented long ceasefire between the military and the communist armed group New People’s Army (NPA). 

“The Reds would never demand my ouster. They will die for me, believe me. That’s the reason why I was able to convince them for a [peace] talk,” Duterte said back then.

In 2018, Duterte started singing a different tune, acting like he’d been deceived by a friend.

He cancelled peace talks with finality, declared the CPP a terrorist organization, purged his Cabinet of leftists, launched an all-out war against them, and installed one general after another in the bureaucracy.

Itong komunista (These communists), I’m no longer ready to talk to you. I’ve done it before. Magmukha lang tayong gago (We will only end up looking stupid),” Duterte said early this month.

Series of blows

Localized peace efforts. Talks with the CPP-led National Democratic Front collapsed in February 2017, but in that year, Duterte was still torn between pursuing the negotiations and abandoning them altogether. (READ: The end of the affair? Duterte’s romance with the Reds)

In 2018, he made up his mind. 

The communists suffered a series of blows that culminated in the issuance of Executive Order 70  on December 4, shifting government strategy to the so-called “whole-of-nation” approach that envisions to provide livelihood and development in known communist areas while demanding the mass surrender of rebels and their supporters. It is almost akin to the “localized peace talks” that the CPP had rejected. 

A National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, led by Duterte and Esperon, was created to seek the active involvement of local government units to craft livelihood and development projects in their areas even as they entice rebels to surrender. 

Terror list. In March, the military got the justice department to declare as “terrorists” up to 600 names and aliases it listed as alleged CPP members. In September, then Armed Forces chief General Carlito Galvez Jr went to town accusing Sison and the CPP of masterminding the supposed Red October plot against Duterte, naming universities said to be fertile ground for recruitment. (READ: 2018 blockbuster: Red October plot vs Duterte)

Military-led DSWD. In October, former Army chief retired general Rolando Bautista took the helm of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), a position previously occupied by CPP nominee and longtime activist Judy Taguiwalo.

Troop deployment. In November, Duterte ordered the deployment of more troops to the Bicol region and the provinces of Samar, Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental – areas outside Mindanao with known communist presence – following the collapse of another attempt at backchannel talks. 

“Our localized peace efforts have achieved far more success in less than a year than the numerous formal talks abroad since the 80’s,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement on November 14.

Joma: Duterte led us on

CPP founding chairman Jose Maria Sison said the military prevailed upon Duterte. 

He named the triumvirate of Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, and Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año – all retired generals – as the most influential in Duterte’s major decisions regarding the Left.

Indeed, the commander in chief has come to depend more on the military for his key decisions and firefighting moves. By the end of 2018, a third of Duterte’s Cabinet are now retired military men. (READ: List: Duterte’s military and police appointees)

Ultimately, Sison puts the blame squarely on his former student. “Pero si Duterte pa rin ang No. 1 anti-peace. Walang magagawa ang mga asungot kung ano na ang desisyon ng commander-in-chief (But Duterte is No. 1 anti-peace. The followers shouldn’t have a choice but to follow the commander-in-chief). If he likes it, then he submits it for approval to his generals,” Sison told Rappler in an online interview on December 10.

Sison said Duterte lied to them.

Sinungaling siya. Nangako siya na i-amnesty at palayain ang mga political prisoners. Nang presidente na siya, agad ayaw na niya (He’s a liar. He promised to grant amnesty to political prisoners. When he became president, he didn’t want to do it anymore),” Sison said. 

But the rebels were also accused of bad faith during the process, such as collecting taxes and mounting attacks on government forces.

Generals question sincerity of Reds, too

It is true it’s hard to find an all-out supporter of the peace talks with Reds within the military. Many officers hesitate to believe that the communist rebels would give up ambition to take over government.

A general cited speeches of communist leaders supposedly admitting that the talks were merely a tactical move to advance a “democratic revolution,” a revolutionary change without violence. 

What would make the military believe the CPP’s sincerity? The general said the top rebel leaders can start by denouncing the armed struggle in public, which, to many, is wishful thinking.

While the countryside enjoyed 6 months of ceasefire at the start of the peace talks – from August 2016 to February 2017 – it did little to build confidence between the military and the NPA.

In the middle of the ceasefire in 2016, the CPP held its first plenum in a long time to elect a new set of leaders that includes young members. In a statement, the CPP said the new leaders “reaffirm[ed] the necessity of waging armed revolution” and presented strategy and tactics “to advance the protracted people’s war towards complete victory.”

Both camps accused each other of abusing the ceasefire. The military was accused of entering “NPA areas” as if to bait the rebels to break the ceasefire. The NPA allegedly took advantage of the lull in fighting to boost recruitment. 

Francisco Lara, government consultant to the talks, said blame goes to both sides for the collapse of the talks, citing failure to get their respective constituencies behind the process.

Impossible demands?

Both sides also asked for conditions that could not be met by the other, said Lara. 

In the on-and-off peace talks, there was an impression that Duterte was only interested in a ceasefire while Sison and the communists were perceived to be wanting only the immediate release of about 400 political prisoners. 

The word war laden with curses and abuse drowned promises to address the root causes of Asia’s longest insurgency. Concerns about ceasefire and prisoner release dominated the public conversation instead of the implementation of true land reform in the Philippines – the core of the talks – and how to realistically proceed with the endeavor that will cost the government P98 billion to acquire up to one million hectares of “contentious” properties for distribution to the poor. 

Duterte did promise to grant amnesty to political prisoners, but Lara said it is reasonable to expect the release of all prisoners only after a political settlement. “He didn’t give a timeframe,” Lara said. 

Daily reports from Año

While talks on the table heated up over allegations of failed promises, the situation on the ground grew increasingly untenable until a clash in January 2017 broke the ceasefire while talks were ongoing in Rome. It was a portent of things to come.

Año, a veteran intelligence officer, also began sending Duterte daily incident reports. Each and every firefight, alleged burning of equipment, and collection of revolutionary taxes was reported to Duterte. 

When the military accused the NPA of overkill when it emptied guns on a supposedly unarmed soldier, Duterte defended his troops. “Anong tingin mo sa sundalo? Aso?(What do you think of soldiers? Dogs?),” an angry Duterte said.

As he received one military report after another, Duterte’s resolve and commitment to his longtime allies began to crumble.

To top it all, the President recently named a general as his peace adviser. (READ: In 2018, Duterte turns to military for (almost) everything)

Retired AFP chief Galvez, who was behind “Red October” bogey, will be replacing Jesus Dureza as head of the Office of Presidential Adviser for Peace Process.

Galvez immediately thumbed down the possibility of resuming talks with Sison and the NDF. “EO 70 is very clear. It is a nationally orchestrated local engagement. It’s been years talking with them and nothing happens. We will look at other possibilities,” said Galvez. 

It’s the perfect coup against a stubborn enemy. –

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