What price peace?
In a series of statements over the weekend, President Duterte went from calm to ballistic against the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.
He started on Thursday by saying he would ignore the New People’s Army’s scheduled lifting of its unilateral ceasefire and would respond “in the fullness of God’s time.” By Sunday, not only had he ordered the resumption of military offensives against the NPA, he also announced the termination of the peace talks altogether, ordered the arrest of the NDFP negotiators, and labelled them “terrorists and criminals.”
The President’s statements came as a shock even to the negotiating panels and the various parties involved in the peace talks. After all, the negotiations were doing quite well and surpassing expectations.
The third round of formal talks, held in Rome on Jan. 19-25, saw the two panels signing a supplementary agreement to revive and strengthen the joint monitoring committee for their human rights agreement signed way back in 1999.
With respect to the agreement on social and economic reforms, the parties reached an agreement on the first three sections of the draft, including the key issue of free land distribution to landless farmers. To expedite the process, the parties agreed to form bilateral working teams to meet continuously before the resumption of the formal talks scheduled on April 2-6.
On the proposed agreement on political and constitutional reforms, the reciprocal working groups of both sides exchanged their respective drafts and initial views.
While no agreement was reached on the government’s proposed bilateral ceasefire agreement, talks on the matter were scheduled in the Netherlands on Feb. 22-27.
But it seems the President was not briefed about these developments when he made his statements last week. He was apparently even unaware that the negotiators of both sides had already returned to the country from Rome.
It’s more than just ignorance. The President is obviously irritated by the NDFP’s insistence that he deliver on his earlier promise to release 400 or so political prisoners. Doing so, he admitted, would make him face a coup d’état, or even murder, at the hands of the military. He said such sentiments were apparent in the “vibrations” and “suggestions” he got during his “coffee time, relaxed moments” with his men.
Adding to the President’s agony over the political prisoners’ release were recent clashes between government troops and the NPA that resulted in the deaths of several soldiers. He probably had to pander even more to the military and assure it of his loyalty, given his previous admissions to being a “leftist” and “socialist.”
Mr. Duterte is frustrated at the NPA’s lifting of its unilateral ceasefire because like previous presidents, he wants an end to the fighting even before a final peace agreement is reached.
But the aim of the talks is not just to end the fighting but also to address the roots of the armed conflict. Thus, much patience, diligence and courage are needed. Insisting on a premature ceasefire and throwing tantrums won’t help.
More than this, the President shouldn’t allow himself to be held back in his peace efforts. As commander in chief, he is in the best position to convince his soldiers that in winning the peace, talking is just as important as, and probably even more crucial than, fighting.
Releasing the political prisoners paves the way for a bilateral ceasefire with the NPA that, in turn, will allow both sides to vigorously pursue the peace talks to its desired conclusion.
The question is: How far is the President willing to go to forge a just and lasting peace? If he can stick his neck out for his war on drugs, then he should be ready to stick it out for peace.
Teddy A. Casiño is an activist who served as Bayan Muna party-list’s representative in Congress in 2004-2013. He is now back in the parliament of the streets.
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