THE third round of the peace negotiations between the Philippine Government, Communist Party of the Philippines, National Democratic Front, and New People's Army (CPP-NDF-NPA) started on an amiable note still as big smiles were apparent in the posted photos of both panels in Rome, Italy.
The spattering of goodwill can also be surmised in a photo posted by Bayan Muna Party-list Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate showing Peace Process Secretary Jesus Dureza wearing a red suit, reminiscent of the red colors of the communist movement, and CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison gamely wearing a hoodie jacket of the Philippine flag colors and a Philippine map on the lapel.
The Philippine Government sent a high-level delegation that had Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr., National Anti-Poverty Commission Chair Liza Masa, and nine members of the House of Representatives led by Tawi-Tawi Representative Ruby Sahali, Chair of the House Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity, as observers, along with the government panel led by Dureza and Government Chief Peace Negotiator Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who once headed the peace talks with the communist groups more than a decade ago.
The positive note on which the talks resumed Friday, January 20, is an extension to the welcome given by Pope Francis to the Philippine officials during the traditional bacciamano (kissing of hands) at the St. Peter's Cathedral the day before.
The amiable smile of Pope Francis was captured in the photos shared by Dureza as he was welcomed and blessed at the Vatican a day before the formal resumption of peace talks.
"When the Pope was still approaching me, I told him, 'We are from the Philippines, your Holiness,'" Dureza posted in his Facebook page the other day.
"Immediately, his face brightened up. Then I quickly told him that we are in Rome for peace talks with our communist brothers. He nodded. I clasped his hand and kissed his ring and he blessed me with my rosary in my hand," he added.
But there's more. After kissing the Pope's hand, Dureza said, "Bless the Philippines, Your Holiness."
To which the Pope replied, "I will also bless your President."
Dureza had earlier said that he was hoping he could personally meet and hand over to Pope Francis a letter from President Rodrigo Duterte during the bacciamano.
Last Wednesday, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp) released a photo of Duterte's letter to the Pope, where Duterte wrote: "Your Holiness, with profound respect, I have the honor to extend my own and my people's warmest greetings to Your Holiness. Our countrymen remember Your Holiness' apostolic visit in 2015 with deep appreciation, knowing that it was made with the most sincere regard for the welfare of the Church's flock," the President said.
"The Philippines values its special relations with the Holy See and regards with gratitude Your Holiness' gracious stewardship of the Catholic faith."
Ending his message, Duterte asked Pope Francis, "Please accept, Your Holiness, the assurances of my highest esteem and respect."
The letter was personally handed over by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay.
Dureza and Bello both said that the president has instructed them to fast track the negotiations in order to have enough time to implement a peace deal under the Duterte administration.
The third round of talk is seen as a "make or break" negotiation as it tackles the "heart and soul" of the peace negotiations, the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms.
Draft proposals have already been exchanged much earlier, which special envoy Elisabeth Slattum described as the most comprehensive so far, even "ambitious."
"And our hope as third party facilitator is that the third round of talks can bring us one step closer to that common goal," Slattum was quoted as saying in a press release from the Opapp.
Slattum is the representative of the Royal Norwegian Government, which is hosting the peace negotiations between the Philippine Government and the NDF, which counts the CPP and the NPA.
The two previous talks held in Oslo, Norway gave "needed momentum to discuss the remaining substantive agenda of the negotiations," Bello said.
Now, they are going to tackle the contentious parts. Still, the government panel remains confident that they can strike a deal with the communist groups within a year to finally end almost half a century of hostilities in the countryside.
"I am one with President Duterte's optimism that in this round of talks, we are able to finalize and approve that joint ceasefire agreement," Bello was quoted as saying.
He added that the government panel is prepared with a draft agreement on bilateral ceasefire on top of the draft agreements on socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and end of hostilities and disposition of forces.
The government panel said the presence of a large contingent from the House of Representatives will help ensure close coordination between the executive and legislative branches of government in accelerating the peace process.
Dureza earlier said the issues and demands of rebel forces in the Philippines could require amendments in the Constitution and even a change of government.
The House delegation also includes Deputy Speaker Bai Sandra Sema; Representatives Reynaldo Umali (justice committee); Rene Relampagos (agrarian reform); and members of the special committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity: Carlos Isagani Zarate, Jesus Sacdalan, Jose Christopher Belmonte, Maximo Rodriguez, Nancy Catamco, Gary Alejano, and Leopoldo Bataoil. (with Opapp press release)