PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has indicated he will not be rushed into signing a bilateral ceasefire agreement, much less resume the peace negotiations with the communists that he angrily terminated earlier this month, for all the small gestures of peace coming from the rebels.
Responding to a Communist Party of the Philippines announcement last Sunday that ahead of concluding a ceasefire agreement with the government, it had ordered its armed wing, the New People’s Army, to release six soldiers and policemen they have been holding captive, Malacanang said the President might be moved by certain “compelling reasons” to revive the aborted talks.
One such reason, according to Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, would be a bilateral ceasefire agreement featuring the following: that the communists agree to cease 1)“extorting” revolutionary taxes from businesses; 2) staging ambushes against the military; 3) burning properties and 4) making other provocative and hostile actions.
There is no indication that the President had instructed the government negotiating panel – earlier ordered to “pack up and come home” – to show up at a scheduled meeting in the Netherlands yesterday to hammer out the terms of a bilateral ceasefire agreement preparatory to threshing out the much tougher and more complicated issues of a permanent settlement.
Having gone to bat more than any other Philippine President for a peace deal with the communist insurgents, Mr. Duterte is exhibiting the aggrieved feelings – and exercising the caution – of the once bitten, twice shy.
To recall, Mr Duterte, a self-declared socialist who shares many of the progressive views of the Left, has made a peace deal with the communists a priority of his administration, without preconditions. He arranged for the release from prison of 18 high-ranking communist leaders so they could participate in the talks, which opened in Norway last August. He gave key portfolio positions in his government to communists.
But after two rounds, the talks foundered on the issue of communist demands that the government release 434 jailed rebels. The President will not free them until the rebels agree to a permanent ceasefire. The communists insist that the prisoners be released before they agree to a permanent ceasefire. The disagreement prompted the rebels and subsequently the government to call off their temporary ceasefire orders.
Not long after, the President terminated the talks, alleging that the rebels had been attacking the military even with their ceasefire in force and the talks were going on. He expressed some pessimism that peace would ever be attained with the Left, whom he branded as “terrorists,” during his presidency. He also told the military to brace for an “all-out war” against the communists.
But is a peace deal really an impossibility now that the President has come face to face with the reality of the situation with the communists he earlier thought could do no wrong? We think not.
As the vexed history of peace negotiations from Northern Ireland to Colombia has shown, every peace process throws up such challenges and controversies. And five decades of conflict with the insurgents have left a bitter legacy of pain and distrust. The thing is to just keep on working hard at it.
As former President Fidel Ramos said – actually in a gentle admonition of President Duterte’s handling of the peace process – the talks cannot stop. “Peace negotiations must continue and continue until you have gained closure, regardless of temporary setbacks,” he said.
Both sides should now take the measure of the reality of things, and make their calculations on which of their claims and principles can stand some adjustment or reciprocal modification.
The CPP said the release of the six “prisoners of war” was a “positive gesture” on their part to reiterate their will to remain in the negotiations. And if Mr. Duterte should decide to send the government negotiating panel to the Netherlands for the February 22-27 scheduled talks, negotiations for a bilateral agreement could begin, the CPP said.
Significantly, there was no reiteration of the demand for the release of the 434 prisoners, but the CPP said it was “encouraged“ by President Duterte’s earlier statement that the jailed communists would be released within 48 hours of the signing of a permanent ceasefire.