ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
After five failed attempts under five presidents at ending the communist insurgency in the Philippines, peace seemed to be within grasp under the Duterte administration. In fact, less than two weeks ago, government peace panel chairman Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III was so confident of a final peace agreement with the National Democratic Front when he announced in Rome that the peace talks “are breaking new ground and gaining traction towards finally achieving peace in the country.”
Bello expected the draft proposals of the two parties to be “initialed” before the third round of the peace talks ended on January 25.
The two sides were discussing the most relevant, yet most contentious, agenda in the talks, which Bello called the “heart and soul” of the peace effort, which is the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER), tackling genuine land reform, national industrialization and the expansion of social services.
No agreement was reached on the government’s proposed bilateral ceasefire in Rome, but the two panels were expected to tackle the issue in The Netherlands on Feb. 22-27.
Then last week, things suddenly headed south. First, the military reported that three soldiers were killed by a group of armed men believed to be NPA rebels in Malaybalay City in Bukidnon.
Earlier, the NPA announced that it would lift its ceasefire on Feb. 10 following disagreements on the release of 400 political prisoners while also accusing the government of moving troops into territories it held.
Over the weekend, a few days before NPA’s scheduled lifting of its unilateral ceasefire, President Duterte jumped the gun on the insurgents and announced the lifting of the government’s six-month unilateral ceasefire. Within hours, Duterte said he was ending the peace talks and ordered government negotiators to come home.
Duterte then ordered the arrest of NDF peace negotiators once they set foot in the country.
“Come home because you’re wanted and upon your arrival, I will arrest you and place you back in prison. If you don’t want to go back, you’re fugitives. I will cancel your passports and I will inform the international police for an international warrant (for you),” Duterte fumed. He said he now considered the NPA a terrorist group.
Even the negotiating panels of both sides were shocked. They were apparently optimistic they could reach agreement soon on ending the longest active insurgency in the world, which has lasted 45 years.
The shift was swift.
On Monday, soldiers arrested NDF consultant Ariel Arbitrario and a liaison officer, Roderick Munsayac, in Davao City. The Armed Forces of the Philippines resumed its offensive against the rebels while the Philippine National Police announced that it would arrest 12 NDF consultants — couple Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, Vic Ladlad, Afelberto Silva, Alfonso Jazmines, Alfredo Mapano, Loida Magpatoc, Pedro Cudaste, Ruben Salota, Ernesto Lorenzo, Porferio Tuna, Renante Gamara and Tirso Alcantara.
Every president since Cory Aquino tried and failed to reach a peace agreement with the communist rebels. Since then, over 40 rounds of talks have been held but each were stalled by contentious issues on the release of political prisoners and the CPP’s inclusion in terrorist lists, not to mention social-political issues. The current talks were also stalled by these same issues.
Both the government and NDF panels expressed hope that the peace talks could continue, especially since they have reached accord on some very difficult issues. But the sides they were representing don’t seem to reflect their desire for peace.
While previously giving sympathetic ear to the rebels no other president has ever shown, Duterte’s mood suddenly swung to the other extreme, calling his erstwhile friends “terrorists and criminals,” and threatening to jail all of them. He showed frustrations over what he deemed unreasonable demand of the NDF to free 400 political prisoners and over the killing of the three soldiers allegedly by the NPA.
“I tried my best to make peace with everybody. These communists, they are spoiled brats. It’s as if they are in the government when they make demands,” he added. Duterte conceded that he could not fulfill his campaign promise to end the communist rebellion during his six-year term.
The NDF, on the other hand, said the military could have killed the three soldiers to pin the blame on the NPA and to provoke Duterte to call off the peace talks. That is a very serious allegation that the AFP quickly denied.
It is no secret, of course, that the military is wary of any peace negotiation with the rebels and sources are saying that key AFP officers reiterated as much to Duterte during his rounds of military camps. Others are suggesting that Duterte may be fearful of a military coup if he gave in to the rebels’ demands, particularly on the release of the 400 political prisoners.
The road to peace that seemed so smooth until about two weeks ago now has become even more difficult to traverse, and the peace that seemed within our grasp suddenly seemingly out of reach.
But both the government and the NDF must not give up hope and do their best to convince Duterte and the rebels in the field to agree to let them pursue peace, however bumpy the road is.
It took four straight years of negotiations between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end the latter’s 52-year insurgency. But in the end, they agreed to call for peace. The Colombian government, the FARC rbels and the people of Colombia were all fatigued by the fighting and they resolved it was time to stop the war and start building peace.
This can happen in the Philippines, too. Everybody has to be patient in pursuing peace and give it a chance.