Can reconciliation gain impetus in the new year?

“As we take part in the festivities during this joyous occasion, may we also contemplate on the wealth of lessons we can learn from the narrative of the Savior’s birth to the calls of compassion, kindness and reconciliation being echoed throughout the globe.

“Let these ideals and aspirations guide us as we embrace our fellowmen in the spirit of our shared humanity and welcome the coming year with much hope and optimism.”

The above quotation states the crux of President Duterte’s message to the Filipino people on Christmas day. It’s a wholesome turn from the vitriol of his rhetoric in the previous weeks. He spent Christmas as father with his family in Davao City and distributed gifts to a throng of common people who lined up at his residence.

Three days before Christmas, he demonstrated compassion and kindness by spending more than three hours with 30 cancer-afflicted children at the pediatric section of the Cancer Institute of the Southern Philippines Medical Center. He shared dinner with them, handed gifts to their parents and guardians. He listened intently to each child, and acted positively on their requests.

Could his solemn words of counsel and humble actions express what may probably be Duterte’s innermost humane sentiments towards his fellowmen?

Earlier on Dec. 22, however, in a gift-giving event and talk to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops in Compostela Valley, the President spoke about a different topic: law and order. In a vastly different tone and language, he said:

“Law and order means you have to destroy, not really fight, but destroy the Communist Party of the Philippines, including its legal fronts and infrastructure.” He reiterated what sounded like a blood-curdling order, not only once but twice, by declaring:

“Do not fight them. Destroy them. Kill them. Just destroy. Who ordered you to do so? I did.” After lambasting Jose Ma. Sison (founding chairman of the CPP, with whom he has had harsh verbal exchanges), he repeated: “We have to destroy them. Destroy them. Do not believe in human rights. I assume full responsibility.”

Going into the new year, which of the contradictory sentiments or stances will the President primarily pursue? One hopes that it will be the pursuit of compassion, kindness – and yes, though slim, the most urgent aspiration: reconciliation.

This sense of hope is premised on three factors:

First, on the assumption that Duterte is highly cognizant of and serious about the “calls of compassion, kindness and reconciliation being echoed throughout the globe,” particularly in these times when across the world, “the supply of ill tidings is both plentiful and serious,” as a Guardian columnist has aptly observed.

Thus he urges everyone to be guided by “these ideals and aspirations” and “embrace our fellowmen in the spirit of our shared humanity and welcome the coming year with much hope and optimism.” (I would be dumbfounded if his spokesperson would say, “Don’t take him seriously on that.”)

Second, his prior order to the AFP on Dec. 22 – to “destroy the (CPP), including its legal fronts and infrastructure” – can be deemed to have been superseded by his latter call for compassion, kindness and reconciliation as “ideals and aspirations” that ought to guide every citizen in doing two things: 1) embrace our fellowmen “in the spirit of our shared humanity,” and 2) welcome the new year “with much hope and optimism.”

Third, on the 50th anniversary of the CPP on Dec. 26, Duterte didn’t issue any statement critical of the Left. Instead, it was his spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, and an AFP spokesperson (along with a number of AFP field commanders) who sought to denigrate the 50 years of sustained armed struggle led by the CPP and its New People’s Army (NPA).

Both Panelo and the AFP public affairs office chief tried to portray the 50-year struggle as a “failed rebellion.” In a crudely constructed statement, Panelo said, in part: “The 50 years of Joma Sison’s rebellion speaks for itself. It’s a failed rebellion. It only resulted in loss of lives of Filipinos, especially the numerous young students who were killed in battles, skirmishes and in sickness in the hills, who could have served their country well in pacific and productive means, as well as destruction of properties.”

One wonders why Panelo and the AFP call the 50-year armed struggle a failure when it is still continuing. A piqued Duterte himself earlier vowed to crush it before his term ends in 2022. In fact, the Philippine STAR front-page yearender on the GRP-NDFP peace talks last Thursday correctly points out:

“There is no end in sight to Asia’s longest-running insurgency… Several administrations have tried to neutralize or at least contain the CPP-NPA rebels [since 1968]. All have failed.”

Panelo may feel high because the STAR gave his diatribe against the CPP and Joma Sison front-page headline treatment. But the more substantive and more enlightening piece is the peace-talks yearender appearing side by side with the headline story. It will greatly help in pursuing reconciliation if Duterte reads the yearender, as it shines a light on who is responsible for the collapse of the peace talks.

While noting that Duterte “has revived hopes for successful negotiations with the communists” since his election in 2016, the yearender points out that in November 2017, “Duterte scuttled the peace negotiations… in a blow to efforts to end the conflict that has raged for half century.”

Other facts cited by the yearender:

• Early this year the peace talks “appeared headed for a better conclusion… but it became dim after Duterte unilaterally terminated the peace negotiations in June…” Four backchannel talks were conducted in Utrecht, the Netherlands from March to June “where the two panels agreed to include in the package agreement a coordinated unilateral ceasefire; a certified copy of presidential proclamation to amnesty and release all political prisoners, and implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms.”

• “The two parties were set to sign the interim peace package on the scheduled June 28-30 resumption of formal peace talks, but it did not take place after Duterte cancelled it on June 14.”

Should compassion, kindness and reconciliation be uppermost in his heart and mind, President Duterte could well rectify his unexplained arbitrary, unilateral actions that truncated the positively-advancing peace negotiations. By doing so his Christmas exhortations could make up for the lost opportunity in 2018 and truly give the Filipino people much hope and optimism in 2019.

Or is this wishful thinking? Whatever: may we all enjoy a happy New Year!

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Published in Philippine Star
Dec. 29, 2018

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