When he returns from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in Papua New Guinea (Nov. 17-18), President Duterte said he would announce if he would meet with Fidel V. Agcaoili and Luis Jalandoni, head and former head now adviser, respectively, of the negotiating panel for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) in the suspended GRP-NDFP peace talks.
Last week, Duterte disclosed that the two NDFP peace negotiators had sought a meeting with him on resuming the peace talks. He said: “I will not keep it a secret. I do not want (it to be) confidential. They will come here. They want to talk to me. Their problem is they might be arrested.”
He had called a “cluster meeting with the military,” he said, and asked for their opinion about the requested meeting. The answer he got: “Maybe,” which he noted was “not a very big margin.” After mulling over the matter, he made clear that “when I go back after Papua New Guinea… I will make the announcement.”
Then he added, cryptically: “So let’s talk again…because it’s a maybe… It’s time for you [addressing the CPP-NPA] to surrender actually. I said I cannot be sure of everything. By the grace of God… in two years, we might achieve peace.”
Was President Duterte signalling he would meet with Agcaoili and Jalandoni and was open to resuming the peace talks? Soon after assuming the presidency, he declared he wanted to complete the peace negotiations early enough so that he could start implementing the key agreements within his term.
Weighing in on the issue, presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza expressed hope that a meeting between Duterte and the NDFP negotiators could lead back to the negotiating table. In a television interview Monday, he said the President remained committed to pursuing a peaceful end to the 50-year armed conflict and was aware that “we also have to address the root cause” of the conflict. (“Addressing the root causes” has been the anchor principle of the GRP-NDFP peace talks since these were initiated in 1986-87 by President Corazon C. Aquino.)
On his part, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Monday that the President has the prerogative to talk directly with the NDFP negotiators. “He doesn’t even have to clear or consult with anybody,” he emphasized, adding that his opinion on the issue would not matter. Apparently the defense chief was alluding to Duterte’s oft-repeated statement that he would first consult the military on the matter of resuming the peace negotiations.
However, a different note was sounded by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año (a former AFP chief). “Talking [between Duterte and the NDFP negotiators] does not mean you would come to an agreement,” he cautioned. “Maybe the President just wants to know why they want to talk to him [Duterte has already said he knew why]. But it doesn’t mean the President will commit to anything,” he told Senate reporters Monday.
Was Año trying to preempt the President’s action if and when the latter does meet with Agcaoili and Jalandoni? He said: “Right now, the President has cancelled already the formal peace talks, and in fact, the President will be leading the national task force to end the armed local communist conflict.” He was referring to the executive order creating the task force, drawn up by the military and police, which Duterte signed recently.
Probably early next week, we’ll find out what Duterte would say. Would he give the nation a sort of Christmas gift by announcing he intends to resume the fifth round of formal negotiations that he had suspended – for three months – in June? Or would he accede to the military pressure to pursue the ambitious target of “finishing” the CPP-NPA by 2019, as AFP chief Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. claimed could be achieved?
Since May 2017, Duterte has thrice unilaterally suspended the fifth round of formal peace negotiations. Had the June 26-28 schedule pushed through, the two parties would have concluded an important agreement on agrarian reform and rural development as component of a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER). There would also have been agreement on a coordinated unilateral ceasefire agreement as well as a general amnesty proposal for political prisoners.
The third suspension ended in September; purportedly, it was called in order to enable the President to review all the previously signed agreements and for the GRP panel to conduct public consultations on the peace negotiations.
Instead of conducting public consultations, however, the government side tried to shift to “localized peace talks,” which the NDFP has rejected as a violation of the first signed ground-laying agreement: The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992. These haven’t taken off, as peace adviser Dureza and GRP negotiating panel head Silvestre Bello III both acknowledged they were waiting for the issuance of pertinent guidelines. They didn’t say who was drafting the guidelines, but the duo implied they had no hand in it (which shouldn’t be the case).
Talking with the President wasn’t the main reason why Agcaoili and Coni Ledesma, NDFP peace panel member, are coming to Manila this month, accompanied by Jalandoni. Agcaoili says the three of them are attending a series of meetings here.
He and Ledesma, Agcaoili pointed out, are coming over “in connection with our work as members of the NDFP component in the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).” The JMC, the implementing body for the CARHRIHL, has offices in Quezon City funded by the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG). Since 2001, the RNG has been the talks’ third-party facilitator. At the third round of formal negotiations in January, the two parties agreed to implement the provisions of the CARHRIHL, which stands even when the talks are suspended.
The three NDFP negotiators are also set to meet with the new RNG Ambassador to the Philippines, Bjørn Jahnsen.
“We welcome the opportunity to meet with the President,“ Agcaoili said, “unless he does not want to, or his military is against it.” No hard pushing there. “We’re hopeful, but it’s still touch and go… There’s nothing wrong with trying.”
After Duterte’s proclamation as president-elect, it was Agcaoili who flew to Davao City in May 2016 to seal an agreement with him to resume the peace talks that had been stalling for decades under past administrations.
Here’s a great opportunity for President Duterte to put the suspended formal negotiations on track again. With political will he can pursue the GRP-NDFP talks to their logical conclusion and fulfill his electoral promise to redress “historical injustices” and achieve a just and lasting peace.
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Published in Philippine Star
Nov. 17, 2018