Ambivalence toward the Left and peace talks

Over the last four years of Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s presidency, we may have gotten used to seeing, hearing, or reading about how he has tended to say one thing and, in the same instance, he walks back on that statement and states the opposite.

This happened again last Tuesday during his weekly late-night televised address to the nation on updates about the Covid-19 pandemic. After defending his signing into law of the widely assailed and legally challenged Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (RA 11479), the President blurted out (in mixed Filipino and English):

“Ito kasing mga Left, pati itong komunista [these people from the Left, even the communists], they think that we are always thinking of them. I don’t – I know that we are also thinking of other matters; as a matter of fact they are the least that we are spending our time [on].”

“They think that they are a different breed,” he went on. “They would like to be treated with another set of law[s], when as a matter of fact, they are terrorists. They are terrorists because we – I finally declared them to be one.”

Then he added: “Why? Because we – I – spent most of my days as a President trying to figure out and connect with them on how we can arrive at a peaceful solution.” He was referring to the 50-year-plus ongoing armed conflict, over which he expressed exasperation.

For sure “most of my days as a President” – over four years – couldn’t have been the least time Duterte has spent thinking about the Left: how to relate with them and endeavor to seek a peaceful resolution of the armed conflict. It seems more like an obsession. Unless, of course, he’s engaging in hyperbole again, as his previous spokesperson used to explain away many a careless Duterte utterance.

Recalling his previously friendly interactions with the Left before being elected president in 2016, Duterte stressed that he didn’t want to engage them in war:

“Wala namang gustong may gyera eh. Ako ayaw ko, lalo na ako. Kilala ko sila, kilala [nila] ako [Nobody wants war. Not me, especially me. We know each other] and it was a good rapport while it lasted” (for 20 years or more, as he has reminisced countless times).

However, he said a big change in the relationship occurred when he became president, explaining it this way:

“… [S]imply because in the ladder of priority, the highest…would be the security of the state.” He did not elaborate, but he spoke inscrutably about there being always “a time to be friendly and a time to be firm…”

“I did my very best,” Duterte claimed, “to produce something for the country.” He was probably referring to his decision – soon after being proclaimed president in May 2016 – to pursue the long-suspended GRP-NDFP peace negotiations toward their logical, positive conclusion; he had campaigned for the presidency promising to do so.

Indeed, he enabled the auspicious and euphoric resumption of the peace talks in August 2016: committed to address the root causes of the armed conflict; upheld all previously signed agreements; and agreed to accelerate the pace of the negotiations, so that he could have ample time, before his six-year term ended, to implement the substantive agreements on social, economic, and political/constitutional reforms that would be hammered out and formally signed by the two parties.

Yet, he complained, all these efforts came to naught:

“But unfortunately I would not be blaming anybody now, unless they [referring to the Left] would start to blame me again so that I can also blame them. Eh wala talagang nangyari [Nothing really was accomplished].”

About his claim that nothing was achieved in the resumed peace talks, President Duterte might be happy to correct himself if he reviews the records of the four rounds of formal negotiations held in Oslo, in Rome, and the Netherlands from August 2016 to April 2017.

The joint public statements, signed by the members of the two panels and the third-party facilitator from the Royal Norwegian Government at the conclusion of each round of formal negotiations, reflect significant, even “unprecedented” advances in the negotiations.

Even after Duterte initially “cancelled” the peace talks on Feb. 4, 2017, when the mutually declared unilateral ceasefires were withdrawn and the government declared an “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA, the two negotiating parties managed to engage in a series of formal and informal discussions on the agreed-upon agenda.

Those discussions manifested the sustained rapport and enthusiasm of the negotiating parties – encouraged and supported by various peace advocacy groups – to push further the gains attained towards forging substantive agreements addressing the root causes of conflict.

President Duterte’s ambivalent – love-hate – stance towards the Left (consequently the peace negotiations) have since put in peril the attainment of his campaign promise to pursue and attain just and lasting peace. His rational side (of heart and mind) urges him to go back to the negotiations table, but his feral side drives him away from it and thrusts him into ordering war and killings.

His militarist advisers pushed him to sign, unthinkingly, three successive issuances toward the end of 2017: Proclamation 360 on Nov. 23, declaring the GRP’s official termination of the peace negotiations; Proclamation 374 on Dec. 5, designating the CPP and the NPA as terrorist organizations followed by asking a Manila trial court to so declare them, as required by law; and Executive Order 70 on Dec. 4, creating the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which has since engaged across the country in vilification, red-tagging, raids, questionable arrests, detention and filing of trumped-up nonbailable criminal charges, and killings.

Nonetheless, the series of on-and-off formal and informal talks between the two negotiating panels (in 2017 and 2018) have produced a number of significant agreements that were bilaterally signed or initialled. But because of Duterte’s ambivalence – he gave the go-ahead signal, then postponed, then cancelled, the agreed-on formal signing of the accords. Thus, remaining in limbo are the ground-breaking common drafts of agreements on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, on National Industrialization and Economic Development, and an Interim Peace Agreement.

One can only hope that President Duterte’s rational side asserts itself, resolutely, to transform these fruits of serious and painstaking negotiations into implementable agreements – for our people’s benefit – as he had wished, within his two remaining years in Malacañang.

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Published in Philippine Star
July 11, 2020

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