President Duterte was more combative during his second state-of-the-nation address last Monday than was during his first SONA. Venting on his prime advocacy, the fight against illegal drugs, and against a wide range of perceived enemies and critics, he came out raising both fists.
Last year, in contrast, he extended a hand of friendship and cooperation with the Left and announced the resumption of the GRP-NDFP peace talks. This time around he fulminated against the CPP-NPA for its sustained counteroffensive actions against government security forces after the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, including an attack on members of the Presidential Security Group at a checkpoint in Arakan, North Cotabato four days before the SONA.
Reacting, Duterte cancelled back-channel talks with the NDFP, which he had ordered to be pursued just two days before, towards continuing the fifth round of formal negotiations stalled since May.
As for the Leftist protesters – who were loudly opposing martial law and calling him to account for his unfulfilled promises in their “People’s SONA,” led by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan – the President remarked they were better off going home. (He probably noticed the huge protesting crowd from the helicopter he rode on before landing on the Batasan Pambansa grounds.)
Yet, soon after his speech, the President hurriedly motored to the rally site, a short distance from the House of Representatives where he had addressed the joint session of the 17th Congress. He walked fast under an early-evening drizzle and went up the makeshift stage to speak to the protesters.
It was a brief speech. Brushing aside some heckling from the crowd and chanting of “Never again to martial law!”, “Continue the peace talks!” Duterte riposted: “Let us respect each other!”
Acknowledging that several issues needed to be resolved, he asked for more time. On continuing the peace talks, he reiterated his grievance that the NPA allegedly tried to ambush him in North Cotabato. (“If you ambush me, I’ll turn my back on you,” he said.)
For other issues against his or his government’s actions or inactions, Duterte offered: “Let’s talk about them.” The three progressive members of his Cabinet (NAPC Secretary Liza M. Maza, DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, and DAR Secretary Rafael Mariano), he suggested, could serve as conduits for relaying to him urgent matters that may require dialogue. (Earlier, the President had given permission for the three Cabinet members to go to the rally and speak before the protesters.)
Given the tense atmosphere, his going straight to the protesters and speaking candidly was an unprecedented surprise move on the President’s part. And it was more dramatic and more politically meaningful than his inviting the march-rally leaders to a dialogue in Malacanang after last year’s SONA, and before that, a similar invitation-dialogue after his inauguration. On those two occasions, the Bayan-led progressive mass organizations rallied in support of the new President because of his having initiated the resumption of the peace talks, his promises to institute reforms and to adopt an independent foreign policy.
Short notice that he would come to face the protesters was relayed to the rally leaders by the Presidential Security Group shortly after Duterte began his speech. A welcoming group was formed to engage him in a brief talk before he addressed the crowd. When he arrived, however, his close-in security ignored the welcoming group altogether and briskly guided the President up the stage. They were unable to talk to him after he finished.
Nonetheless, the political significance of that presidential initiative cannot be underestimated.
For one, it signifies that President Duterte continues to value maintaining an open line for interaction with the Left, both with the political leadership of the underground armed revolutionary movement and with the leaders of the open-legal democratic mass movement.
After blustering that he no longer wanted to talk to the Left, his peace adviser, Jesus G. Dureza, clarified that the cancellation of the back-channel talks was just temporary. Likewise, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella explained that the peace talks have not been cancelled but simply put “on hold.” Both men claim an abiding trust in Duterte’s “deep passion” for attaining a just and lasting peace for the people, the avowed end-goal of the peace talks.
For now, the door remains open for the continuation of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations.
Duterte hasn’t shown any significant change in attitude and ways of relating to the leaders of the open Left despite some tension in the tone of their recent conversations. This was palpable during Duterte’s dialogue, a few days before the SONA, with the Bayan leaders, the Makabayan bloc progressive partylist representatives, workers’ and peasants’ leaders, mass leaders from Davao City and representatives of the Lumad in Mindanao.
Although fiery speeches highlighted the “People’s Sona,” Duterte’s surprise appearance and frank talk may have deterred the protesters from burning his war-mongering effigy.
Also, Duterte’s advice to the protesters to avail of the mediation of the three progressive Cabinet members suggests his trust and confidence in them and satisfaction with their performance in office. In fact, he authorized Maza and Mariano to act as consultants to the GRP panel during the last two rounds of formal negotiations on social and economic reforms. Those rounds have made significant advances particularly on agrarian reform.
That’s one compelling reason to continue the peace talks. Get on with the back channeling.
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Publised in The Philippine Star
July 29, 2017