DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Ahead of the third round of talks between the Duterte government and the communists this month, 2016 ended with a bumpy but fruitful peace negotiations.
Both parties agreed that more have been accomplished in the last six months under the new administration of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte than in the last decade of the previous Arroyo and Aquino governments.
The GRP recognized that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)’s declaration of a ceasefire was “unprecedented and historic.”
For its part, the CPP said upon the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte that it greatly anticipated the advancement of the peace negotiations.
Nearly 30 political prisoners, including the National Democratic Front consultants were freed. Two rounds of peace talks were held with a commitment to hold the third round to discuss the meat and most substantive part of the talks: the socio-economic reforms seen to alleviate the suffering of the millions of the country’s poor Filipino farmers and workers.
But rampant human rights abuses, ceasefire violations, and failure to honor commitments to the peace talks marred the achievements of the peace talks last year.
NPA leaders said civilians in the communities are clamoring for the guerillas to resume its combat stance in order to defend them from the presence and “abusive” operations of the AFP soldiers in their communities. Human rights advocates decried the suffering of more than 400 political prisoners who have not been freed.
Indeed, peace negotiations under the Duterte administration were a ride with humps and bumps.
Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza said so during the second round of talks with the NDFP in Oslo, Norway in October this year, almost four months after both panels signed the Joint Statement where it was agreed to resume the formal talks.
Starting it right
The historic resumption of peace talks between the government and the NDFP followed after President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed Leftist and Socialist, won in the elections.
The peace talks with the Communists have been stalled for five years.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, then frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte promised that he would revolt from within the government should he win in the elections.
“We will change this government. If I’m there, I will revolt from the inside because this is not a government for the people, so you should join me,” he said when he received a political prisoner detained by the New People’s Army somewhere in North Cotabato on April 26.
If he wins, Duterte said he would immediately declare a ceasefire.
Duterte also declared that he is the President who is supposed to bring peace in the country.
“I cannot stop talking about peace. I am a President who is supposed to bring this to his land. Whether it’s Sison or not, whether I like to talk to Sison or not, it’s not important. It’s not relevant at all,” Duterte said.
Jose Maria Sison is Duterte’s former professor whom he talked to in a Skype conversation on April. Duterte told Sison that he is against the oligarchs and will follow “the pattern of Socialism in governance.”
Sison also believed that he is “the most open to cooperation” among Presidential candidates.
In his inaugural speech, Duterte said his administration is committed to implement all signed peace agreements in step with constitutional and legal reforms.
Leftists in Duterte’s cabinet
After winning the elections in May, Duterte offered four Cabinet posts to the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Leaders from the Left appointed to the Cabinet were Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, Labor Undersecretary Joel Maglungsod, Social Welfare Undersecretary Mae Fe Templa, National Anti-Poverty Commission Chair Liza Maza, and Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor Chair Terry Ridon.
“And I’m ready to give more. I can accommodate all of them,” Duterte said.
Duterte also promised to grant general amnesty to political prisoners.
Roadblocks to peace
The openness of the new administration paved the way for the talks to resume.
But the scheduled talks on July 27 was moved to August following the request of the Office on the Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process to ensure “technical details” particularly regarding the nationwide ceasefire and the release of the political prisoners.
July 27 was two days after President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his first State of the Nation Address where he declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Communists.
After five days, Duterte lifted the ceasefire following the reported NPA attack against government troops in Kapalong, Davao del Norte onJuly 27.
One Cafgu Armed Auxiliary died while three other troops were hurt in what the NPA described as an engagement due to “unrelenting military operations.”
Duterte also demanded the NPA to stop the use of command-detonated explosives.
The unilateral ceasefire was lifted on July 30.
The New People’s Army said there was no ceasefire in Southern Mindanao.
“The July 27 engagement of Red fighters against members of CAFGU of 72nd IB and the paramilitary Alamara in Kapalong, Davao del Norte only highlighted the unrelenting military operations of AFP troops. Worse still, the fabricated lies they spin to their commander-in-chief and the media to smokescreen their palpable violation demonstrate their outright disdain for the peace process,” NPA spokesman Rigoberto Sanchez said.
Ka Oris, spokesperson of the National Operations Command of the NPA said in statement that prior to the unilateral ceasefire declaration by Duterte, they have observed that the AFP has “extended and intensified military offensives under the Oplan Bayanihan in complete disregard of the avowed policy of engaging the revolutionary forces in peace talks.”
Oris cited the killings of civilians by government troops.
On June 9, the NPA said two of their fighters were tortured and killed.
Oris also cited the alleged desecration of the cadaver of NPA fighter Noel Gulmatico in Magpet on July 1 and the alleged abduction of 16 members of an Aggay clan on June 17 in Cagayan province by the government forces.
The Army denied the allegations and said that they adhere to the International Humanitarian Law.
Clashes between government troops and the NPA continued.
On July 6, an Ata Manobo tribe leader was killed by the NPA in Panabo City. The NPA said Ruben Labawan “was guilty of blood debts and thereby meted with death penalty for serious crimes against the people.”
On July 8 and 9, the Army launched an airstrike against the NPA in Caraga town, Davao Oriental. The evacuees reached to at least 399 families said Army information officer, Capt. Eliseo Marcolino of the 67th IB. He said the residents evacuated since July 6 because of their fear of the NPA.
But the NDF said the Army’s attack caused the displacement of the Mandaya people.
In early August, four soldiers died in a series of NPA attacks in Compostela Valley province.
The Army criticized the NPA for allegedly mutilating the soldiers who died in the gunbattle.
The issue on the use of command-detonated explosives was again brought up.
Dureza was not wrong.
Tensions are still on the rise because of what the NDF claimed as “ceasefire violations” by the government troops.
On Oct. 10, anti-mining farmer Jimmy Saypan was shot in Compostela Valley. He died the next day.
Ka Oris said “not a few NPA units are having difficulty holding back offensives amid threats of armed troops of the AFP which continue to conduct Oplan Bayanihan counter-insurgency intelligence, psywar and combat operations in the guerrilla zones of the NPA.”
“There are reports of continuing AFP operations across the country, from North Luzon to Southern Mindanao. There are even reports that military units are telling civilian residents that the ceasefire is no longer in effect to justify their operations and presence in their communities,” he said.
Ka Oris said even the anti-drug war is used to conduct anti-NPA operations.
On Oct. 13, environment activist Joselito Pasaporte was gunned down.
But Chief Insp. Andrea dela Cerna, PRO-Davao spokesperson, said they received an information that Joselito Pasaporte’s name was among the people enlisted on drug watch list.
Similar instances were reported by human rights group Karapatan.
The arrest of activists were also brought as an issue by the NDF.
On Aug. 19, Amelia Pond, a researcher for Salugpungan Learning Center was arrested in Cebu for allegedly being an NPA member.
Release of political prisoners
During the second round of talks in Oslo on Oct. 6 to 9, the GRP and the NDF approved a common framework and outline on the three substantive agenda.
It was also agreed that the government panel would recommend the release of the political prisoners before being signed by the President and concurred by Congress.
However, the release of more than 400 political prisoners was taking time. Much so, that a political prisoner has died in the hospital.
Bernabe Ocasla, 66, a farmer who was detained in the Manila City Jail after his third cardiac arrest on Nov. 25. Ocasla was charged of 15 counts of multiple murders in relation to the mass graves allegedly discovered by the military in 2006.
According to Karapatan, there were 12 other political prisoners died while under detention because of lack of proper medical attention and inhuman jail conditions. The group blamed Ocasla’s death on the GRP.
But the GRP panel said that the release should undergo judicial processes.
GRP panel Atty. Angela Librado-Trinidad said there are 200 political prisoners who are on the process of clearing pending cases from different offices.
She said there are 21 political prisoners who have clearances, 18 of whom are eligible for pardon.
Currently, Duterte’s promise of granting amnesty and releasing all elderly and ailing prisoners before Christmas remains unfulfilled.
Even as the leaders of the NDF met with Duterte here in December, Duterte he will not release the 130 political prisoners requested by the NDF as he has given “too much, too soon.”
He said the release of the political prisoners is his “last ace” in the peace process.
Duterte wanted the NDF to sign first a bilateral indefinite ceasefire agreement.
The last release of political prisoners in 2016 were the four political prisoners whom Duterte granted pardon.
Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao said the release of the political prisoners should be seen as not just about complying with the previous agreement between the GRP and NDF.
“It is also about untying the years of unjust deeds perpetrated by the state of the political prisoners by slapping them with trumped-up charges,” he said.
Davao City Councilors also supported the call to release all political prisoners through a resolution on Dec. 9.
Third round of talks
The next round of talks is scheduled on January 18 to 25 in Rome, Italy, an achievement listed by the Duterte administration among its accomplishments in the year 2016.
But what are the prospects on the peace negotiations?
During the celebration of the 48th anniversary of the CPP, the NPA took the opportunity to score President Duterte for failing to fulfill its promise in releasing political prisoners. The NPA said that its unilateral ceasefire is “becoming untenable” because Duterte failed to “tame” the Army from committing ceasefire violations and human rights abuses.
GRP chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III maintained that they have not received any reports on the said violations.
Speaking before a press conference during the CPP’s anniversary here, NDF peace panel member Connie Ledesma said this is the longest ceasefire for the administration.
“If you read newspapers, the GRP is boasting that the ceasefire agreement is the longest ceasefire in the history of peace talks. But we are saying that there are many violations,” Ledesma said.
“But the Royal Norwegian Government was shocked when we told them that it is the people who wants to stop the ceasefire,” she said.
Despite these, Duterte and Sison shared a “productive” phone conversation before the year ended.
The two issues on the release of prisoners and the bilateral ceasefire will remain at hand on the third round of talks.
Both panels will also discuss the drafts of the more substantial agenda particularly the social and economic reforms, which is described as the “meat” and “heart and soul” of the peace talks.
Ledesma said the NDF said they would continue to engage the government in the peace talks to reach the agreements. (davaotoday.com)