(The following article was published in the Commentary section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on August 19, 2016.)
We all know the road to peace is rocky. But maybe not this rocky.
It started on a high note when then President-elect Rodrigo Duterte offered the hand of peace to the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). He went the extra mile by offering four Cabinet posts to the NDFP, which it politely declined in favor of well-known activists and street parliamentarians, three of whom were eventually appointed to his Cabinet. He also announced that more than 500 political prisoners languishing in jail, many on trumped-up charges, would be released, starting with the NDFP consultants to the peace talks and the women, sick and elderly.
Well before Mr. Duterte’s inauguration as president, incoming members of the government peace panel led by former activists Silvestre Bello and Hernani Braganza went to The Hague for exploratory talks with their NDFP counterparts. On June 14, the two panels came up with a joint statement announcing the resumption of the talks in the third week of July. They agreed that the talks would take up the affirmation of previously signed agreements (around 10 have been signed since 1986), the acceleration of the peace process, the reconstitution of the list of protected persons under the joint agreement on safety and immunity guarantees (Jasig), an amnesty proclamation for political prisoners, and the mode for an interim ceasefire.
The government panel promised to recommend to Mr. Duterte the immediate release of NDFP consultants and other Jasig-protected persons to ensure their participation in the talks, and others to be released based on humanitarian grounds.
The planned talks hit the first snag when, a few days before the scheduled resumption in July, the government panel sought a postponement because it had yet to effect the release of the detained NDFP consultants. Talks were rescheduled for Aug. 20, giving the government a month to fulfill its commitment.
And then came the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), where he declared an immediate, unilateral ceasefire. This was warmly welcomed by everyone. The leaderships of the NDFP and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said they would respond accordingly once Mr. Duterte’s orders were made clear and operational.
Unfortunately, there were no details of the ceasefire in the Sona. No one knew the operational aspects, schedules, or specific orders of the Commander in Chief. In response, the New People’s Army (NPA) announced on July 26 that it would go on “active defense” mode while awaiting guidance from the NDFP. Later that day, the NDFP received a copy of the military’s, and then of the police’s, suspension of offensive operations on July 27.
It was apparent in both these suspensions that the military and police would not withdraw their troops from NPA-controlled areas or even civilian communities, like the lumad, that had been demanding their withdrawal. It was clear that security forces would continue with most of their operations, albeit “nonoffensive,” like “peace and order operations,” and even “legal offensives” against suspected rebels and rebel sympathizers. This is precisely why previous ceasefires have been ineffective: Despite the declarations, the situation on the ground remains unchanged.
And so it was no surprise that on July 27, a clash broke out between the NPA and members of the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) in Kapalong, Davao del Norte. The group is allegedly part of the Alamara paramilitary group, which is backed by the Philippine Army’s 72nd Infantry Battalion. The NPA admitted attacking in self-defense, alleging that the Cafgu and Army troops were on combat operations in the direction of an NPA camp.
Mr. Duterte, who by that time was touring various military camps nationwide, was incensed. He probably felt insulted. At first he demanded an explanation from the NDFP. But finding the explanation unacceptable, he threatened the rebels that they declare their own ceasefire or he would lift his own. It was a ridiculous demand. But he had painted himself in a corner.
To be fair, it appears that the NDFP was scrambling till the last minute to come up with something to reciprocate the President’s actions. Perhaps it was in a bind: Exactly what was there to reciprocate, and how? On its face and on the ground, the suspension of offensive military and police operations did not amount to anything resembling a ceasefire. Additionally, the government was way behind schedule in releasing the detained NDFP members in time for the talks. In any case, the CPP was to issue a statement on the matter at 8 p.m. on July 30, as announced by its public information bureau. But by 7 p.m. Mr. Duterte had lifted his ceasefire, preempting the CPP announcement. What followed was a word war between him and CPP founder Jose Ma. Sison.
This is a reality check for the President, who thought he could bamboozle the NDFP into a ceasefire ahead of the formal talks. He should understand that there are no shortcuts to peace, that agreements, whether on an interim ceasefire or a comprehensive agreement on socioeconomic or political reforms, can be reached only through painstaking and earnest negotiations. Grand gestures will always be subject to the fine print.
Of late, the CPP has issued strongly worded statements against Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign and his decision to have Ferdinand Marcos buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. This further complicates the now tenuous rapport between Mr. Duterte and the Left, of which he claims to be part. Fortunately, both sides have pledged to resume the formal talks on Aug. 20. Despite the delays and initial bungling in the Supreme Court, the government seems to be intent on having the NDF consultants released in time for the talks.