Fragile GRP-NDFP peace process nears breaking point

Photo courtesy of Philippine Peace Center

Philippines communist rebels are ready for any permanent break down in peace talks with President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, their Utrecht-based leaders said Thursday (June 28).

National Democratic Front peace panel chairman Fidel Agcaoili, however, said they would not give the mercurial strongman an excuse to unleash martial law nationwide.

Jose Ma Sison, Communist Party of the Philippines founder and senior political adviser of the NDF, said Duterte’s insistence on holding peace talks in the country would kill the peace process.

“Let him terminate the talks,” Agcaoili said.

“Any side can move to terminate,” he added. “But if we walk first, he will use it as an excuse to unleash his fascist dictatorship.”

“Revolutionary and progressive forces must exercise vigilance and be committed to act in selfdefense, especially forces in the underground,” the rebel peace panel chair added. “We must not let down our guard.”

Agcaoili and Sison spoke on Skype at the forum at the forum “Peace Under Siege: Is Just Peace Possible Under a Despotic Regime?”

After a litany of criticisms against Duterte, Sison said “the monster has unmasked himself.”

“The NDFP can no longer negotiate with a GRP that is headed by Duterte. So long as he heads the GRP, the Filipino people, especially the oppressed and exploited, cannot expect any benefit from negotiating with the Duterte regime,” Sison said.

“It is relatively easier and more productive for the NDFP to participate in the Oust-Duterte movement and to prepare for peace negotitions with the prospective administration that replaces the Duterte regime,” he added.

Sison said the economic programs of Duterte, who once claimed to be socialist, is like that of his predecessors: “retention of the semi-feudal character of the economy along the neoliberal line.”

“He emulates the Marcos line of build, build, build infrastructure, borrow, borrow, borrow and steal, steal, steal,” Sison added.

He also slammed a planned charter change initiative to install a federal system of government, calling this “merely a vehicle of Duterte´s scheme of fascist dictatorship emulative of Marcos.”

“He wants an overcostly and turbulent federal system of exploiting classes, regional dynasties and warlords,” the CPP founder said.

Patience waning

Asked after his talk, Sison said it would be hard to ignore another overture by Duterte. But he warned that patience among NDFP forces and allies was at a low point.

“We will have to think very carefully about any new offers,” he said.

Sison sent out to press his report on the political implications of the current impasse and prospects of the GRP-NDFP peace talks as Agcaoili was speaking in the first half of the program.

READ Report

On Friday, the morning after, Sison issued a clarification:

“Some news reports claim that I have canceled or terminated the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. Only the National Council of the NDFP can make the decision to suspend, cancel or terminate the peace negotiations with GRP and has not yet made such a decision. I can only make the pertinent advice to the Council in my capacity as Chief Political Consultant.”

“It is very likely that he will convert his three-month suspension of the formal talks to one more termination,” Sison said.

READ Clarification

At the forum, Sison said Duterte is obsessed with “the capitulation and pacification of the revolutionary forces.”

Duterte has no interest in addressing the roots of the armed conflict through social, economic and political reforms, he added.

Public consultations

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In response to a question from Nona Castillo, wife of detained political prisoner Ferdinand Castillo, on how many cancellations are needed before Asia’s longest running insurgency walks away from the peace talks, Agcaoili said: “Hindi tayo nagsasawa.”

“Pero hindi din tayo magpapaloko,” the NDF peace panel head stressed, dismissing calls by Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza for joint public consultations on landmark agreements waiting to be signed.

“Gusto nilang ipalabas na walang labanan (they pretend there is no war)… but there is a civil war, there are two governments, and we are not an NGO,” Agcaoili said.

Agcaoili warned that if the government withdraws recognition for already signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), “then there may no longer be any reason to continue the talks.”

He was referring to reports that the defense establishment had asked for a review of agreements signed under previous governments.

Dureza said Duterte decided to postpone the fifth round of talks, scheduled this month, to allow stakeholders to weigh in on a stand down agreement and two key economic agreements nearing final signing status.

The economic documents include one on an agrarian reform program to complete unmet government land distribution targets.

NDF economic consultant Alan Jazmines in a previous interview said around a million hectares of land still need to be given to farmers and that the proposed agreement, initialized in backdoor talks, includes free distribution. The agreement also spares poor farmers who have not paid government for the distributed land from losing their agrarian reform parcels.

The other agreement is on national industrialization, which includes protectionist policies at odds with Duterte’s charter change initiative that opens land ownership and control of key industries to foreigners.

The stand down document, also initialed by backdoor representatives of the two sides, states that their forces would stay where they are upon signing (as is/where is) and not engage in any offensive actions, only in active defense of their positions.

Government goal

Duterte in 2017 cancelled talks after encounters between NPA guerrillas and soldiers pushing deep into rebel bases. He has previously rejected the concept of active defense, insisting his troops had the right to sweep into any area and that he does not recognize the concept of “territory.”

Duterte, announcing the last cancellation, said he needs to listen to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the generals of the Armed Forces.

Agcaoili said the military and Duterte do not want a stand down agreement that would force the government and rebel armies to remain in place,

“That’s because they want to fulfil their threat to end or render irrelevant the NPA by December 2018,” he said.

Lorenzana last week warned rebels were using peace talks to consolidate their forces and expand recruitment into their ranks.

The NDF has always readied itself for any breakdown, the panel chair said.

“Mabagsik si Duterte, alam natin. Ngayon pa lang, mabagsik sya. Kailangan labanan talaga,” Agcaoili said, stressing the need to strengthen its broad united front. (We know Duterte is brutal. So we will really need to fight hard.)

“It’s nearing untenable srstus,” he acknowledged, citing new draconian measures like the crackdown on street loiterers and continuing killings linked to Duterte’s drug war.

He also said Duterte’s incendiary remarks, the arrests and killings of activists and threats against churches and human rights groups are meant to provoke rebel forces.

Duterte has a record of softening his stance when rebels push back against his orders. So he may yet proffer again the olive branch.

scaRRedcat Veteran, award-winning journalist, former chair of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, and Knight Intl Fellow at Stanford