Hopes were high following chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello 3rd’s announcement earlier this month that the fifth round of talks with communist rebels under the National Democratic Front (NDF) would resume in the middle of August. The talks were put on hold after the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) ordered offensives against the military in Mindanao to resist the imposition of martial law there following the terrorist attack in Marawi City in May.
Now that things have cooled down comes terrible news from North Cotabato: the ambush of members of the Presidential Security Group — the President’s bodyguards — by New People’s Army (NPA) rebels. Reports indicated that the PSG men were on their way to Cagayan de Oro City from Davao City, and stopped in Arakan town before reaching a checkpoint. It was manned by uniformed men, but they thought it was suspicious. Before the President’s guards knew it, they were exchanging gunfire with about 100 suspected fighters of the NPA, the CPP’s armed wing.
Four PSG men of the 10 going to Cagayan de Oro were said to have been wounded in the gunfight, while a militiaman was killed.
It’s no longer easy to sweep this incident aside. NPAs are known to stage ambushes and disguise themselves as military men. But this is the second time the rebels have targeted the PSG. In November, the Reds ambushed presidential guards en route to Marawi City. Seven PSG men and two soldiers were wounded.
A disturbing pattern of duplicity is again emerging. On one hand, you have the NDF pushing peace talks and giving the government side all assurances of keeping their fighters in control. On the other, you have the NPAs and their CPP ideologues taking every opportunity to stick it to the government and throw the negotiations in disarray. The message is clear enough; the communist forces on the ground are taunting President Duterte.
This latest ambush puts into question anew two things about the NDF, this supposedly broad coalition of people’s organizations engaging the government in peace talks. First is its sincerity. If it really wants to talk peace, why can’t it put to a stop these violent ambuscades? Better yet, why can’t it agree to a bilateral ceasefire, with clear mechanisms, so the two negotiating panels can talk in an atmosphere of peace?
Second, is the NDF really in control of the CPP and NPA, or is it the other way around? The public can’t help but think the latter is the case, when, despite the NDF’s pronouncements of reining in the rebels and a slowdown in hostilities, the opposite happens on the ground. If the comrades think the ambush in Arakan projects for them an image of strength, they are sorely mistaken. It’s coming across as treachery and a bad omen ahead of the talks.
At this point, the government should reconsider its stance in pursuing peace negotiations with the NDF, which is anyway already a spent force (the NPA headcount is down drastically to fewer than 5,000, from about 26,000 in the 1980s). More important, the government needs to negotiate from a clear position of strength. It’s probably the more viable way of talking peace to a two-faced enemy. As former US Secretary of State George Shultz had said: “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.”