From today, Dec. 24, to Dec. 26, and from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1, the guns of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) will fall silent in observance of the Christmas and New Year holidays. That’s according to the unilateral ceasefire declaration the rebel group announced for this year.
No equivalent ceasefire declaration from the Armed Forces of the Philippines is forthcoming, however, marking the first time in 30 years that Filipinos will celebrate the holidays without the by-now traditional temporary cessation of hostilities between the government and the insurgents.
That absence would have happened in 2017, too, but for a last-minute change of heart by President Duterte, who declared a ceasefire from Dec. 23 to 26 and from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2 — a much shorter truce than previous ones.
Peace this year, on the other hand, is turning out to be even more elusive, as the relations between the Duterte administration and the communist leadership are practically at nadir point.
A rapprochement with, and eventual resolution of, the communist insurgency was one of the central promises of Mr. Duterte’s presidency.
His longtime rapport with communist rebels in the South had made him the only candidate in the 2016 presidential election with the cachet and credibility to sway weary voters with the promise of a just and lasting solution to the rebellion.
And his administration did hit the ground running, approving an accelerated timeline for peace talks on its second month in office and, a month later, holding the first round of peace talks with the National Democratic Front in Oslo, Norway — the first time the two parties began talking again after nearly five years.
In that meeting, both parties agreed, among others, to declare unilateral ceasefires as a confidence-building measure, to help the burgeoning détente along.
That period seems of an entirely different era now, as Mr. Duterte and the communist leadership went soon after from being tentative peacemakers to all-out adversaries, their exchanges marked by broadsides and insults, while the AFP and the NPA have repeatedly clashed in bloody encounters.
Mr. Duterte’s rhetoric against the rebels has upped considerably: “If I see you, I will kill you, even if the human rights [groups] are here,” he said recently. “You are cruel and brutal people, you don’t deserve mercy.”
He has also floated the idea of forming “death squads” that would mirror the NPA’s infamous Sparrow Units — urban hit teams during the ’80s — but with the Reds in the crosshairs this time.
For his part, CPP founder Jose Ma. Sison, once cozy with Mr. Duterte — his former student in political science at Lyceum University whom he once lauded as offering “more hope for the advance and success of the peace negotiations than previous presidents and regimes” — is more engaged these days in returning fire and trying to better Mr. Duterte in brickbats.
The President is using the CPP as a scapegoat to “give him the pretext to establish a fascist dictatorship through martial law,” he said, while also calling his former student a “bloodthirsty tyrant.”
Despite the holiday ceasefire declared this year by the rebels, Mr. Duterte isn’t biting.
“They were the ones who declared a unilateral ceasefire, I did not ask for it,” he said. “But they were also the ones who launched the attack in Sorsogon, and… they killed the wife of a Cafgu.”
Last Wednesday, the NPA captured two soldiers and 12 militiamen at a military detachment in a remote village in Agusan del Sur province, further dimming hopes of any cooling-off period between the two sides.
Such incidents, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, only prove the insincerity of the rebels, thus the AFP’s recommendation, greenlighted by Mr. Duterte, that no equivalent ceasefire be declared from the government’s side.
The holiday suspension of hostilities between the armed parties has almost become its own Christmas tradition ever since the late 1980s, when the Corazon Aquino administration first began exploring peace talks with the CPP.
But even that temporary gesture of peace and goodwill — a sliver of concord among warring Filipinos held out of respect for the profound and central place Christmas occupies in the consciousness of their fellow countrymen and women — appears to be on its way out, too, another casualty of the preening, bellicose times.
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