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After a year in office, the first self-proclaimed Leftist and Socialist president of the Philippines has become more rightist and fascist than ever.

Swept to office last year on the promise of sweeping changes, President Rodrigo Duterte and his government are proving to be a hindrance to the country’s most urgent political and socio-economic reforms.

Worse, with the recent declaration of martial law and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao and possibly elsewhere, he is threatening to bring the country back to the Marcosian days of martial rule.

Human rights catastrophe

If there is any accomplishment that President Duterte can rightly claim his own, it’s the deaths of more than 8,000 suspected drug users and pushers at the hands of the police, police assets and police-backed vigilante death squads. This was his campaign promise, and he is doing it with flair.

The unbelievable frequency and impunity by which these extrajudicial killings (i.e. summary executions at the hands of state security forces) are committed have become the hallmark of his “war on drugs.” It is targeted mainly at the poor, who neither have the clout nor the resources to defend themselves from such an onslaught by the very government that is supposed to protect their rights.

The drug-related killings have earned widespread condemnation from human rights advocates here and abroad. And by comparing himself to Hitler, Duterte has singlehandedly cemented his image on the world stage as a proponent of genocide and mass murder.

Just like the EJKs of petty criminals in Davao City when he was then mayor, the killings due to the drug war cannot be directly attributed to President Duterte. He has never pulled the trigger or ordered the killing of specific individuals.

But by giving his men the go-ahead to shoot drug suspects, repeatedly condoning the killings and assuring those involved of protection and even a presidential pardon, and with authorities under him failing or refusing to investigate or prosecute numerous cases of EJKs, then he becomes accountable.

It’s not only the poor drug users and pushers that get killed. In the last year, human rights groups have documented at least 55 extrajudicial killings of peasants and indigenous peoples suspected of being members or sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA). Almost all victims were involved in land disputes involving large plantations or in campaigns to stop large-scale mining in their communities. Independent investigations almost always point to government soldiers or members of military-backed paramilitary groups as perpetrators.

Whether drug related or counterinsurgency related, whether one or 8,000, such killings target the poor and are utterly condemnable. It represents the darkest side of the Duterte presidency.

Peace talks on the brink

In contrast, the resumption of the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) can be considered the Duterte presidency’s silver lining. His appointment of 3 NDFP nominees to his cabinet, the release of NDFP consultants involved in the negotiations, and his commitment to honor all previously signed agreements between the two parties have established much confidence and goodwill in the talks.

The peace talks with the NDFP are key to his campaign promise of bringing peace to the whole country. The talks are meant to address the root causes of the 50-year old armed conflict. It’s agenda includes the entire gamut of economic, social, cultural, political and constitutional reforms. Moreover, Duterte’s background as a Kabataang Makabayan activist and claims of being a leftist and socialist endears him well to the NDFP.

There have been four rounds of formal talks in the last year, the most number of any administration. Major gains have been achieved in forging a substatial agreement on social and economic reforms, including a consensus on free land distribution as the key principle in agrarian reform. Drafts have been exchanged on political and constitutional reforms, and discussions started on the eventual cessation of hostilities and disposition of forces.

Unfortunately, Duterte’s insistence, on the prodding of his military and defense officials, on a bilateral ceasefire prior to any substantial agreement has snagged the talks. At this stage in the negotiations where no substantial agreement has yet been signed, the NDFP considers such a bilateral ceasefire agreeement as a virtual document of surrender and capitulation.

As in previous regimes, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) want the rebels to enter into a ceasefire but insists on its right to operate in NPA strongholds and areas where the rebels operate. The rebels know that this is to their disadvantage and so insists that the talks proceed even as both sides fight it out in the battlefield.

In previous negotiations, substantial agreements between the two parties – like the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) – were negotiated and signed despite the absence of a ceasefire.

As a compromise, the NDFP has agreed to entering such a ceasefire simultaneous with the signing of an agreement on social and economic reforms, hopefully within the year. But the security cluster led by former generals National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana is against this. This was what basically caused the collapse of the 5th round of negotiations scheduled last May.

But it is the issue of martial law that has put the peace talks in a most precarious situation. On the day that martial law was declared in Mindanao, Sec. Lorenzana identified the NPA as among the targets. This compelled the Communist Party to order the NPA to fight back through intensified offensives. Later, after the 5th round of talks had collapsed, Duterte said that he would order the arrest of NDFP consultants and negotiators.

Although Lorenzana has recalled his statement and military officials insist that martial law is intended only to address the threat of ISIS-inspired groups, the National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission held in Mindanao last June 13-17 reported that under martial law, military operations and aerial bombings have increased in NPA strongholds and mass bases in the island.

If martial law is extended and leads to massive human rights violations and the curtailment of civil and political rights, and if Duterte makes good his threat to arrest the NDFP officials, the talks might just reach a dead end.

(This article was published in the Thought Leaders section of rappler.com on June 30, 2017. Photo lifted from South China Morning Post scmp.com.)

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