An atmosphere of cautiousness, overshadowed by the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, hangs over the fifth round of GRP-NDFP formal negotiations under the Duterte government which begin today (till June 1), in Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands.
Much depends on how events will unfold in the next few days: how will the Mindanao situation affect the effort to achieve a “just and lasting peace” in our country? More than ever, the times call for careful weighing of the facts and consequences, most of all upon the people (and not just big business and the military).
At any rate, the same atmosphere of cautiousness had already pervaded the previous, fourth round held in April – although the joint statement signed by the two parties on April 6 declared it “successful.”
The euphoria that ran through the first three rounds in August, October, and January – which etched record advances in the formal negotiations on the substantive agenda – has yet to be regained. Nonetheless, the two sides continue reaffirming their commitments to adhere to previously signed agreements, and to accelerate the pace towards attaining comprehensive agreements on social and economic reforms and on political and constitutional reforms within an agreed-on timeframe.
This change from euphoria to cautiousness can be attributed to the disruption in the negotiations in February to March: President Duterte’s abrupt cancellation of the peace talks and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s declaration of an “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA. (There was a misunderstanding over the implementation – and withdrawal, by the CPP-NPA – of the reciprocal unilateral ceasefires declared by the two sides in August, each with its own guidelines.)
Since then, the Cabinet internal security cluster and the military have become more assertive in intervening in the conduct of the peace talks and in making public statements that have tended to undermine their progress.
For instance, a few days before the fourth round of talks began – after Mr. Duterte had initiated and personally monitored back-channel talks that put back on track the disrupted negotiations – National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. strongly pushed a hard-line proposal. He urged that ahead of discussions on social and economic reforms (the main agenda), the two parties must negotiate a bilateral/joint ceasefire agreement that calls for stopping revolutionary taxation and denying any claim of territory by the revolutionary forces. (Esperon also urged intensified “internal security operations”, meaning counterinsurgency operations against the CPP-NPA.)
The GRP panel’s compliant presentation of Esperon’s proposal delayed the start of the April round. However, another impasse was averted by “exercising maximum flexibility while staying firm on principles,” in the words of NDFP panel head Fidel V. Agcaoili. As a result, an “Agreement on an Interim Joint Ceasefire,” was signed by the two panels on April 5.
To be sure, that agreement is not yet a ceasefire accord. Its guidelines and ground rules for implementation have yet to be threshed out even as the formal discussions on a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) proceed. It also explicitly provides that “matters regarding a single government authority [over territory] and taxation shall be discussed and resolved in forging the Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms within the framework of the proposed Federal Republic of the Philippines.”
Apparently the militarists in the Duterte government continue to press for prioritizing a joint ceasefire in the agenda of the fifth round of formal negotiations, which shall primarily discuss the contentious issues and the remaining items on agrarian reform and rural development, after having firmed up agreement on the free distribution of land to landless peasants and farm workers.
The NDFP panel, however, asserts that the long-pending implementation of the 1998 Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), agreed upon in the third round, must now be pursued with decisiveness.
This has to do, among others, with redressing HR-IHL violations in the conduct of the almost 50-year war and rectifying the wrongful arrest, detention, and prosecution for common-crime offenses of political prisoners through their immediate release and general amnesty. These are issues consistently included in each joint statement after every round of negotiations – with the GRP repeatedly promising to do its best to comply with its commitments. The NDFP accuses the government of holding political prisoners as bargaining chip in pressing for an early signing of an interim joint ceasefire agreement.
Besides the CARHRIHL implementation, another sore point has been the violations by state security forces of the guarantees of safety and immunity of NDFP consultants under the reaffirmed JASIG (Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees). No action has been taken on the promised releases of three long-imprisoned NDFP consultants and of two others recently arrested. Meantime, certain NDFP consultants, who were released in August and have been participating in the peace talks, have protested against their being subjected to military surveillance and harassments.
In the past days statements in the media, attributed to Secretary Lorenzana and various AFP field officers, have been assailing the New People’s Army’s attacks on AFP troops, PNP facilities, and against privately-owned firms that have been accused of oppressive and exploitative practices against farmers and workers. Some have called for a stop to the peace talks. Lorenzana has tried to entice the NPA members to surrender their arms and join the AFP.
The NDFP has called those who made such statements as “spoilers” out to sabotage the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. In a recent statement, its negotiating panel pointed out:
“…It is the AFP that is on the offensive with its continuing counterinsurgency program…. They are not for peace. They are for continuing the war against the revolutionary forces and the people. Lorenzana and the war hawks are not for a political solution to the armed conflict but for surrender of the revolutionary forces without the needed reforms to change the status quo.”
President Duterte, the statement concluded, “must therefore assert civilian authority over his own military so that a political solution between the government and the revolutionary forces can be reached and a just and lasting peace established in the country.” Is his Mindanao maneuver the President’s response?
Published in The Philippine Star
May 27, 2017