Unfazed, church leaders push for peace talks resumption beyond 2022 polls

Jul. 31, 2021

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY – With the classification of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) as a terrorist group by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) recently, a group of Christian church officials is determined to support and initiate moves that will revive the peace negotiations between the government and Communist guerrillas.

According to the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), they will work for the revival of the peace talks and will continue to do so beyond the 2022 local and national elections when the country will have already chosen its new set of political leaders.

“Whoever is the President, we will push the agenda for the resumption of peace talks,” said Bishop Rex Reyes Jr., PEPP co-chairperson, in a phone interview Thursday, July 29.

Reyes said the PEPP is strong in its belief that “there is no alternative to peace talks” as armed conflict and bloodshed will just go on if both parties will not go back to the negotiating table and resume the talks.

“It is in our culture to talk things out. This is not a political agenda. Whoever sits [as president], we are motivated to do it and call for the resumption of the peace talks,” the prelate said.

Reyes said they are unfazed by the fact that Pres. Rodrigo Duterte only have a few months left in office as PEPP is determined to lobby for the revival of the peace negotiations even after the current chief executive is no longer in power.

It can be recalled that in 2019, Duterte had ordered the official termination of the talks and directed the government panelists to withdraw from the negotiating table after reports of Communist insurgents launched a series of attacks against security forces and law enforcement personnel all over the country since he assumed office in 2016.

“Whether he [Duterte] listens or not, it is not an issue for us. If they listen to us, then good. If not, we will push for the resumption of the talks. That has been our stand ever since,” Reyes said.

For his part, Archbishop emeritus Antonio Ledesma, PEPP co-chairperson, said the group is also considering on making the peace talks as “an election issue.”

Voting criteria

In a separate phone interview Thursday, Ledesma said they will inform their church members that one of the criteria of voters in choosing candidates is to elect those who advocate for peace-building.

He added they will bring the issue to the people in the parishes and small groups and “start with local level conversation and bring the stakeholders to the discussion” so that there will be a deeper understanding and appreciation of the importance of the peace talks.

Meanwhile, in its July 22, 2021 statement, the PEPP has expressed its dismay of the ATC’s designation of the NDFP as a terrorist group.

The ATC’s declaration, the group asserted, “tragically closes the door to what is truly called for: a peaceful resolution of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the NDFP conflict.”

It said, “Sadly, with this action the ATC buried 29 years of laborious and painstaking agreements and gradual steps toward peace” as it took jabs at the government who seems to be “ignoring that peace is a sacred right of all people and guaranteed as a fundamental duty of the state.”

PEPP added the ATC’s decision confirms that the Anti-Terrorism Law is a huge hurdle to the promise of peace everyone as it is being used as a weapon in a total war against so-called terrorists.

It said the ATC designation demonstrates that the government is using its full resources to subdue not just the NDFP but also the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People’s Army.

The group said the ATC “does not fully recognize that violence will not resolve the conflict, that the most judicious way to address its roots – poverty, landlessness, inequitable access to resources – is to resume the formal peace talks.”

The designation and the present course that relies on the use of violent means only increase the likelihood of more violations in human rights and international and humanitarian law, it added.

Escalation of harmed civilians

“We are therefore greatly concerned about the escalation of civilian populations being harmed as seen in the rising cases of killings, threats, harassment, and restriction of movements of farming and indigenous communities in remote rural areas,” PEPP said.

It added: “This latest designation by the ATC also begs the question: Are groups supporting or calling for the resumption of the formal peace talks with “designated terrorists” next in the ATC’s crossfires as well?”

As church leaders, PEPP said they “will not falter in our belief and call that the most viable option for a just and lasting peace is through a negotiated peace settlement coupled with meaningful social and economic reforms.”

The group has also appealed to the government to rescind its designation of the NDFP as a terrorist organization and recognize the lasting devastation this will have on the Filipino people’s trust in the state’s competence to resolve internal conflicts through peaceful negotiations.

“We continue to appeal to both parties to return to the negotiating table. We also call on our people to pray and work for peace and support prospective candidates in the coming elections who are committed to genuine peace,” it added.

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