The peace talks

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte is mellowing once more after scuttling the talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). In a recent speech, he opened himself up to the possibility of resuming the talks. This followed an earlier mellowing by Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding chairman Jose Ma. Sison, who said the NDFP is willing to return to the negotiating table.

The Duterte administration has actually moved far after the talks got halted. The most telling act was starting the process of declaring the CPP a terrorist organization. The President already signed an official declaration to this effect, but the rule says the courts need to have a say on that. A list of around 600 names has already been drawn, but having them declared terrorists is a tedious and long-drawn process.

That the President has been flip-flopping on the talks shows the push-and-pull he is experiencing within his circle, which obviously has doves as well as hawks. Peace talks adviser Jesus Dureza and, to a certain extent, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III seems to be leading the doves while Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana seems to be representing the hawks, notably the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The flip-flopping can also be because the president saw through boasts by some AFP officials about fully eradicating the rebel threat before his term ends. Months after the talks were scuttled, the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have nothing much to show, especially in arresting top CPP leaders or even re-arresting the jailed NDFP consultants who were released because of the talks.

Again, the revolution is not about the CPP or its cadres but about the iniquitous and oppressive societal setup that is currently prevailing. It is not about dealing with the CPP or its cadres but about dealing with the roots of society’s problems, thus the talks.

But resuming the peace negotiations is a two-way street. The talks were about to proceed to the substantive phase, which is about economic and socio-political and cultural issues, but meandered because of the failure by both sides to forge a bilateral ceasefire pact. I think the main reason for that is that both are suspicious of each other.

The NDFP is wary of a long-term cessation of hostilities because of its negative effect on its armed force, the New People’s Army (NPA). Fighting strengthens both the ideological and organizational capability of the NPA. It can focus on other tasks of the revolution or focus on training and preparation, but fighting is the fire that forges it. Also, ceasefire can blunt the ability of the NDFP to defend its forces from attacks.

This only means that a bilateral ceasefire agreement is something that both sides should talk about at length. There is, for example, the tricky issue on whether whatever both panels agree would be followed all the way down to the smallest armed units of the two sides. Will the military stop patrolling NDFP “territories” and will the NPA stay within the confines of NDFP “territories” while the talks are ongoing?

My hope is that creases are straightened out and the talks reopen.
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