For the second time since February, the GRP-NDFP peace talks – which both parties and peace advocates have hailed for achieving an unprecedented advance on the most substantive agenda since President Duterte revived the talks in August 2016 – have suffered disruption. As the fifth round of negotiations was about to begin on May 27 in the Netherlands, the GRP panel (arriving with a reduced delegation) announced it would not participate in the round.
The disrupting factor: the Duterte Cabinet security cluster insists on the signing of a joint ceasefire agreement ahead of a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), while the GRP dithers on complying with its repeated commitments to implement the CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law), particularly as regards the release of political prisoners. (Only 19 of the 411 prisoners on the list submitted to Duterte in May 2016 were ordered freed on bail to participate in the talks, while 16 others were freed by the courts on the merits of their cases. Meantime, the government has jailed 39 new political prisoners.)
The President’s proclamation of martial law on May 23 and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao have worsened the snag. Their implementation has piled upon the destruction and suffering inflicted on rural/hinterland communities by the AFP’s “all-out war” against the NPA. (The anti-NPA policy was declared by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in February after Duterte first cancelled the peace talks; it continued even as negotiations were resumed in April.) The day after the proclamation, on May 24, the Communist Party of the Philippines ordered the NPA to intensify offensive operations against the AFP and urged the people to oppose martial law.
Presidential peace adviser Jesus G. Dureza, in a statement he read at a press conference on May 27, tried to pass the blame on the other side by citing, among others, the following as “serious challenges… (that) put at great risk our efforts to stay the course of peace”:
The “noticeable upscale” in offensive attacks by the NPA throughout the country; the “seeming perception of the bigger public that these NPA operations are in open and public defiance of President Duterte who has consistently accommodated them in unprecedented ways”; the “renewed surfacing of public apprehension questioning the sincerity of the CPP/NPA/NDF in the peace talks”; the “sudden and perceptible erosion of public support to the peace talks with strong messages received… to altogether stop peace negotiations.”
But the most serious development, Dureza said, was the CPP order to the NPA to “accelerate and intensify attacks against the government in the face of the declaration of martial law… principally directed at extremists and terrorists…” These factors, he said, impelled the GRP panel not to participate in the fifth round… “until such time as there are clear indications that an enabling environment conducive to achieving just and sustainable peace in the land through peace negotiations across the table shall prevail.”
The NDFP panel’s quick reply, issued by its chairperson Fidel V, Agcaoili, was clear and direct. Dureza’s statement, it said, was an ultimatum served on the NDFP to collapse the talks unless the latter submitted to two “unreasonable demands”: 1) that the CPP rescind its order to the NPA that was, “in the main, responding to the intensified AFP military operations before and after Duterte’s declaration of martial law” and 2) that the NDFP immediately sign a joint ceasefire agreement “even without the necessary agreements on social, economic and political reforms in place.”
As proof of intensified AFP operations, the statement cited a field report from NPA units that search-and-destroy operations, aerial strikes, artillery shellings, and occupation of peasant communities were being carried out in the provinces of Compostela Valley, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, Saranggani, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, and Bukidnon and in Davao City. “In light of these attacks…, NPA units are left with little choice but to undertake more and more tactical offensives in order to defend the masses and the people’s army,” it quoted the report.
Regarding an immediate ceasefire, the NDFP panel deemed it unreasonable because absent any agreement on reforms “it one-sidedly demands from the NPA to stop fighting while the AFP continues its all-out war.” Even more objectionable, it said, the demand is imposed as a precondition to moving ahead with discussions on CASER, the main agenda for the fifth round and considered as the meat of the whole peace negotiations that “could provide the most enduring basis for peace and social justice.” (There’s an explicit agreement against preconditions to any negotiations). The NDFP delegation had come to the table ready to work on this agenda, the statement emphasized.
For a while, the Royal Norwegian Government third party facilitator, Ambassador Elisabeth Slattum, convinced the two panel chairs to sign a joint statement along with her. It would have clarified that while the fifth round was cancelled the peace negotiations were continuing; the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) remains valid and in effect; that the two panels were “working on a common position against the Maute group and other terrorists collaborating with them”; and that bilateral teams shall pursue work on a common draft CASER. But Dureza stopped the signing and discouraged any further bilateral discussions, whether formal or informal.
On June 1 the NDFP panel issued a statement urging the GRP panel to return to negotiations, heeding the people’s clamor for continued talks on social, economic, and political reforms.
It also called for the two sides to stand together and undertake counteraction against the terrorists proportional to the degree of danger, threat and harm they were inflicting in Marawi City. “In specific areas of cooperation and coordination, the armed forces of the GRP and NDFP shall be bound by a ceasefire agreement between them, pending the issuance of ceasefire declarations that are unilateral but simultaneous and reciprocal,” the NDFP proposed. GRP chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III welcomed the proposal, and President Duterte considered it a “goodwill gesture.” The door, then, is still open.
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 10, 2017