The new administration’s priority policy to forge a peace agreement with communist rebels is not only sound; it is long overdue. It is unfortunate, then, that last weekend the prenegotiations reached an impasse, and the two men most responsible for the new rapprochement exchanged words and acted on impulse.
The road to peace is long and tortuous; the parties must pace themselves, and not exhaust their reserves of goodwill prematurely.
President Duterte made a dramatic gesture during his first State of the Nation Address (Sona) last July 25, declaring a unilateral ceasefire in government operations against the New People’s Army. Two days later came news that the NPA had attacked government forces in Davao del Norte. In response, the President gave the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF, or CNN in government shorthand) an ultimatum: Respond with a ceasefire of your own by 5 p.m. on Saturday (July 30) Manila time, or face the consequences.
When the deadline came and went, Mr. Duterte revoked his declaration. “Let me now announce that I am hereby ordering for the immediate lifting of the unilateral ceasefire that I ordered last July 25 against the communist rebels,” he said through a statement. The truce lasted five days.
Part of the reason why peace talks between the government and communist rebels restarted was the personal relationship between the President and the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Ma. Sison. Mr. Duterte, a self-described socialist, had once been a student of Sison’s; he also has pronounced left or left-of-center sympathies. He famously offered leftists serving in Congress or their allies a maximum of four seats in his Cabinet; right after the election he welcomed the possibility of Sison, living in exile in the Netherlands, finally coming home. “Yes, he is welcome. I am happy with the statement that he is coming home. I would very much want to talk to him about resolving the insurgency problem.”
They may need to talk sooner, and more often, than most people anticipated. Soon after Duterte lifted his ceasefire order on Saturday night, Sison let loose. He scored Duterte for imposing conditions on the CPP-NPA-NDF. “Kailanman ay hindi pwedeng utusan ni Duterte ang rebolusyunaryong grupo na sumunod sa kanyang gusto” [Never can Duterte order the revolutionary group to follow what he wants]. He belittled the original ceasefire declaration, calling it “fictitious” and “defective.” He said: “Sabi rin ng Southern Mindanao Command ng NPA na nonexistent ang ceasefire ni Duterte sa AFP and PNP. Hindi sila sumusunod sa ceasefire order ng kanilang Commander in Chief” [The NPA’s Southern Military Command also said that Duterte’s ceasefire was nonexistent in the AFP and PNP. They were not following the ceasefire order of their Commander in Chief]. Not least, he got personal: “Volatile ang character ni Duterte at may asal butangero” [Duterte’s character is volatile and he acts like a hoodlum].
As today’s pop culture-savvy generation would say: Shots fired.
We do not know if the President knew that the communist rebels were ready to announce their own ceasefire at 8 p.m. on Saturday—that is, three hours after his deadline—and chose to ignore the possibility anyway. (His Cabinet has rightist or right-of-center members, too.) We do not know if the President understands that Sison in the Netherlands does not have complete control or even influence on the communist insurgency he started. We do not know if the President had sufficiently prepared the armed services before declaring the ceasefire, to ready them for the possibility of rogue encounters. We trust that decisions were made based on reasoned discussion and not impulse.
But the greater burden of responsibility lies with Sison. A unilateral ceasefire is an imperfect tool but a clear signal; it is no small thing. But Sison in exile argues as though the responsibility were all the government’s. He criticizes the issuance of a Somo (suspension of military operations) only on Tuesday, as though the few hours’ difference between the President’s Sona and the Somo were material. He attributes no good faith to government forces, even though in the five days of the truce only government militiamen had been killed or injured. Above all, he insults his former student, never a seemly exercise. The road to peace is hard; bitter feelings make the journey even longer.