This week the Philippine STAR is celebrating its 30th founding anniversary. I join its loyal readers in commending the editorial staff, the management, and the employees for the paper’s sustained growth and dedicated pursuance of its declared goal: that, through responsible reporting and opinion writing, truth shall prevail.
Also I thank the Philippine STAR for acceding to my request to write this Saturday column almost six years ago (starting on August 21, 2010). Not a few who know my worldview and political persuasion have asked why I chose this paper. My reply: “Why not? There’s room for another perspective, and the management has welcomed it.” Despite the persistence of trolls (in online comments) who venomously badmouth me and wish I’d drop dead – whatever the topic I write about – I relish the sober, positive, inquisitive and intellectually stimulating comments I have received through email. Salamat po!
Yesterday media reported that President Duterte had reacted strongly to an AFP Public Affairs Office report that the New People’s Army ambushed a CAFGU Active Auxiliary patrol team in Kapalong, Davao del Norte Wednesday morning – two days after he had announced an immediate unilateral ceasefire with the CPP-NPA. One militiaman was reportedly killed and four others were wounded.
“What is this? Are we into this truce or are we not?” the President was quoted as saying in a talk before troops of the Southern Luzon Command in Camp Guillermo Nakar in Quezon. He added that he had sent this message to the CPP-NPA/NDFP: “Give me an answer by tonight because if tomorrow there is still none, I will revoke the ceasefire order. Balik tayo sa away, [kung] ‘yan ang gusto ninyo (We’ll go back to fighting [if] that’s what you want).
Is the ceasefire “in peril,” as the headline of one newspaper says? Not necessarily. There’s just a need to clarify matters pertinent to the mode and implementing details of the government’s unilateral ceasefire and the expected corresponding unilateral ceasefire declaration of the CPP-NPA/NDFP.
First, we can understand President Duterte’s impulse to react strongly to the reported ambush. In his first SONA wherein he announced the unilateral ceasefire, he preceded it with a specific call to put a stop to ambuscades. But more substantively he premised his ceasefire order on three goals: to “immediately stop violence on the ground, restore peace in the communities, and provide an enabling environment conducive to the resumption of the peace negotiations.”
Second, while he may be faulted for expressing his resentment towards the NPA before AFP troops, Duterte did right in instructing Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, chair of the government peace negotiating panel, to demand an explanation from the CPP-NPA/NDFP. The latter had welcomed his ceasefire announcement but awaited more details before announcing its own unilateral ceasefire. Meantime, the NPA forces have been ordered to adopt an “active defensive mode.”
On Thursday evening the NDFP peace panel gave an initial reply. Panel spokesman Fidel Agcaoili told media he had already informed Secretary Bello that the NDFP “will have to look into the [ambush] report because, as far as the NDFP is concerned, the NPA is in an active defensive mode since July 26, as announced by Ka Oris, the newly appointed head of the NPA National Operational Command.”
This quick interaction between the government and the NDFP panels must lead to deeper and extensive discrete exchanges towards arriving at a consensus on the mode of a unilateral ceasefire as differentiated from a truce. Actually, such a consensus has to be hammered out during the scheduled August 20-27 resumption of the GPH-NDFP formal peace negotiations. Ironically, the need for immediate clarification is being raised by the reported NPA ambush and Duterte’s sharp reaction to it.
With due respect to President Duterte, he made a slip when he asked, “Are we into this truce, or are we not?”
The fact is, there is no truce in place, yet. And there wasn’t even a mutual unilateral ceasefire in place when he spoke on Thursday. There was only his unilateral ceasefire announcement, dovetailed with an AFP order of suspension of offensive military operations (SOMO) against the NPA. The other party has not yet reciprocated with a similar announcement. If the NPA had indeed ambushed the CAFGU-CAA team, it didn’t violate any ceasefire announcement – much less a ceasefire agreement.
A truce would be a formal agreement, usually in writing, between two parties in an armed conflict that doesn’t simply entail a stop to offensive military operations. More importantly, a truce defines the political objectives to be worked out in bilateral negotiations to resolve the conflict, absent the fighting on the ground.
What President Duterte stated, when he announced the unilateral AFP ceasefire last Monday, was that it was intended to “provide an enabling environment conducive for the resumption of the peace talks.” Once reciprocated by the other party, it can lead later to an actual truce depending on the favorable outcome of the formal negotiations that will resume this August.
But even in the case of a mutual unilateral ceasefire, there’s need for the two parties — to achieve the objective of facilitating the peace negotiations – to agree on the details of how it will be implemented by each side. Otherwise, there are bound to be incidents of “unintended encounters” or armed clashes as happened many times under earlier mutual ceasefire declarations.
For instance, what constitutes a SOMO? Offhand, it simply says both parties ought to suspend offensive military operations against each other. There’s no condition for laying down of arms, just refraining from attacking each other. But without defined lines on the ground where fully armed units of both sides may not tread, they are bound to encounter each other. That, of course, could spell trouble.
Published in the Philippine Star
July 30, 2016