PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte doubled down on his angry rhetoric against communist rebels on Sunday, saying they are now considered a “terrorist group” following attacks on government troops that forced an end to a five-month old truce and the cancellation of peace talks.
Duterte made the statement just hours after abruptly ending negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), telling government negotiators to “fold their tents” and calling on leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) to go back to prison.
“From now on I will consider the CPP-NPA-NDF a terrorist group,” Duterte told reporters in Cagayan de Oro City were he visited the wake of fallen soldiers.
Duterte said he would not set a deadline for the surrender of CPP-NPA leaders and would leave the start of any offensive to the military.
“When I lifted the ceasefire, they can carry on their attacks and we are prepared. We have many assets, a lot of planes, we now have jets.
Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza on Sunday accepted the President’s decision.
“If there is anyone who passionately dreams of and works on bringing about sustainable peace in the land, it is President Duterte. His judgment calls are directed towards this goal. At the moment, he has clearly spoken on the directions we all in government should take. Let’s take guidance from these recent declarations,” Dureza said in a statement.
Dureza, however, assured the public that the Duterte administration was committed to pursuing peace.
“As I always say, the road to just and lasting peace is not easy to traverse. There are humps and bumps, and curves and detours along the way. What is important is that we all stay the course,” Dureza said.
In a radio interview, Assistant Secretary Ana Banaag of the Presidential Communications Office said the government would not hunt down communist rebels in the aftermath of the breakdown of the peace talks, or bar left-leaning Cabinet members from Palace meetings.
In January, the government and the NDFP ended a third round of peace talks in Rome without a bilateral ceasefire agreement, but both sides said their separate unilateral ceasefire declarations would remain.
Both sides agreed to resume peace talks on February 22 in the Netherlands, to try to hammer out a bilateral ceasefire agreement.
But the NPA, the NDFP’s armed wing, announced last Wednesday the termination of their unilateral ceasefire effective February 10, citing Duterte’s failure to release about 400 detained rebels.
Duterte on Friday refused to give in to the rebels’ demand and lifted the ceasefire on the part of the government, calling on the Armed Forces of the Philippines to “be ready to fight.”
The President’s decision came after NPA attacks that killed six soldiers. The rebels also abducted three government troopers.
‘Not in hiding’
Fidel Agcaoili, head of the NDFP panel, said he was awaiting a formal notice of the cancellation of talks and clarified that 17 communist leaders freed by Duterte to join the negotiations were in the Philippines and not in hiding.
He stressed that the rebel leaders were protected from re-arrest in accordance with the earlier Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, and that their travel expenses were shouldered by the Norwegian government as third-party facilitator.
“These consultants have been put under the effective jurisdiction of GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) courts because they were released only on bail and only for a six-month period. They have been required to secure court permission every time they went abroad to participate in the last three rounds of talks. Their bail renewal is due this month and, as reflected in the Rome Joint Statement of 25 January 2017, both their lawyers and the GRP have agreed to cooperate in this regard,” Agcaoili said in a statement.
“The NDFP stands firm in its commitment to struggle for a just and lasting peace in the country in accordance with the national and democratic aspirations of the Filipino people,” he added.
‘Go back to peace table’
Various sectors appealed to the government and the NDFP to go back to peace talks even with the President’s decision to end negotiations.
Asia for Development and Peace Today made an “urgent call” to both sides to “go back to the table and continue the talks”
“Bring the peace process to the public domain and persevere to bring it to a just conclusion,” it said in a statement. “Involve the people especially the poor and under-represented sectors to raise and help resolve the basic issues and concerns of poverty, peace and development which are at the core of the talks. Let’s not give way for evil forces to further obstruct and stall d peace process,” it added.
Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna party-list appealed to the President to reconsider his decision to end peace talks with the rebels.
“What happened was very unfortunate. A chance should be given to negotiate and iron out the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms and the bilateral ceasefire even with the collapse of the unilateral ceasefires,” Zarate said in a statement.
Zarate claimed the junking of the unilateral ceasefire declarations of both parties would “only embolden the militarists in and out of the government to continue a system that impoverished our country and people, as well as spawned widespread violations of human rights.”
Professor Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies of Center for People Empowerment in Governance, said that instead of suspending the negotiations, both panels should go back to the negotiating table and have the reported ceasefire violations be resolved by a joint monitoring committee.
Tuazon said the decision of the President to call off the talks could have been based on disinformation from the military. “He was ill-advised and ill-informed,” Tuazon told The Manila Times.
Tuazon noted that the NDFP, through Agcaoili, had agreed to compromise and scale down its demand for the release of detained rebels to 50 from 400.
“Mr. Duterte fully knows that there is no military solution to fighting the NPA as the latter itself, through the NDFP, has always declared they are open to a negotiated political settlement through a peace process,” he added.