Yes…! The ball is rolling forward again, though slowly, for the GRP-NDFP peace talks. Both parties are moving cautiously but expressing determination to pursue and achieve their agreed-on targets, following the unprecedented progress racked up in the first three rounds of formal negotiations.
As narrated in this space last week, the GRP panel interdicted the formal opening of the fifth round of negotiations on May 27 in the Netherlands by announcing it would not participate. In a prepared statement he read at a press conference, presidential peace adviser Jesus G. Dureza cited a number of alleged factors that tended to pass the blame on the NDFP, which the latter immediately debunked in writing and in a press conference.
It turned out that the main disrupting factor was the Cabinet security cluster’s insistence on the signing of a joint ceasefire agreement ahead of a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), deemed as the “meat” of the entire peace negotiations. This matter had been dealt with in the fourth round of negotiations in April, through an Agreement on an Interim Joint Ceasefire, signed by both panels, but whose guidelines and ground rules for implementation are still to be discussed and formulated “in between formal talks.”
(The NDFP refuses to engage in any kind of prolonged and indefinite ceasefire agreement before reaching substantive agreements on social, economic, political, and constitutional reforms. In fact, it has said that at least two years of implementation of such reforms would be “desirable and necessary” before calling a formal permanent truce, as a component of a culminating Comprehensive Agreement on the End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces.
(Apparently, the NDFP does not wish to get preoccupied with accusations and counter-accusations of ceasefire violations that disrupt or sidetrack the formal discussions on substantive reforms. This is what happened in the initial GRP-NDFP peace talks in 1986-87 – and to some extent when unilateral reciprocal ceasefire declarations were made from late August 2016 to early February 2017.)
An additional disruptive factor was President Duterte’s proclamation of martial law on May 23 and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao. The CPP-NPA responded by urging the people to oppose the martial law proclamation and called for intensified tactical offensives against the government security forces.
Although no formal joint statement was issued on the cancellation of the latest schedule of meetings, both sides implicitly understood that only the fifth round had been called off. Also, GRP chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III welcomed an NDFP proposal (contained in a June 1 statement urging a return to the negotiating table) for a joint counteraction against the terrorists besieging Marawi City that would ent0ail ceasefire in “specific areas of cooperation and coordination,” which the President accepted as a “goodwill gesture.” Thus I ended my column piece last week with this optimistic note: “The door, then, is still open.”
A few days ago, it was learned that, through back-channel talks, members of the two panels had resolved certain actual or perceived hindrances and agreed to continue the disrupted fifth round of negotiations within two months. That would round up a year of negotiations which began with euphoria in August 2016. It would give Duterte a relatively upbeat report in his second state-of-the-nation address next month.
Jose Ma. Sison, NDFP chief political consultant, broke the good news in a televised Skype interview with ANC last Wednesday morning (Manila time). He said statements on the points of agreement arrived at during the back-channel talks can be expected to be officially issued separately by the panels.
Last June 13 members of the two panels finally placed in a safe-deposit box in The Hague, under the care of the city’s archbishop, the reconstituted list of NDFP consultants and personnel (with their true names and photographs) covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG, signed in 1995). Both panels have copies of the list and keys to the deposit box, which could be opened whenever any need arises for verifying the identity of a person holding a JASIG document of identification. (The original list, encrypted in a floppy disk that had been damaged by time, couldn’t be read when retrieved in 2011. The Aquino government rejected the NDFP offer to reconstitute the list.)
The depositing of the reconstituted list now definitively puts in effect the guarantees of safety of movement and immunity from harassment and arrest of NDFP consultants who had been arrested, detained and charged in various trial courts and who were released on bail in August 2016 to participate in the peace talks. Thirteen of them, who flew to the Netherlands for the fifth round, have been compelled to extend their stay in that country because President Duterte publicly threatened to have them arrested once they returned to the Philippines. (He made a similar threat in February, but at that time the NDFP delegation had returned to the country already.)
Though the threat has not been revoked, the group (who playfully call themselves the “Oceans’ 13”) are taking the risk that they can safely come back home, with GRP panel head Bello himself meeting them upon their arrival at the airport. Yesterday, a Filipina doctor was scheduled to check on their medical conditions, as many of them are said to be running out of maintenance medicines. Let’s await what happens next.
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Published in The Philippine Star
June 17, 2017