Peace talks to resume, but challenges remain
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - December 14, 2019 - 12:00am

“Back to negotiations for the GRP and NDFP?” I wrote last week in this space, and answering my own question, I said that we may have to wait for the outcome of Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III’s mission to Utrecht (the Netherlands) to talk with the NDFP peace negotiators.

Bello has returned and reported to the President, describing the latter’s reaction as “okay.” But he did let out the good news awaited by the community of peace advocates: the NDFP negotiators and his mission team have agreed to resume the formal negotiations – which Duterte had unilaterally “terminated” in November 2017.

President Duterte, he said, will announce the formal resumption of the negotiations saying, “I don’t want to preempt him.” “What is important,” he optimistically disclosed, “is that they are willing to resume the talks and they agreed to 90 percent of what the President said,” referring to what the latter had asked him to relay to the NDFP.

Nonetheless, Bello’s gleefulness drove him to make a few more disclosures. In a radio interview, he mentioned the following:

Duterte and Jose Ma. Sison, according to him, have agreed (as they did in 2016) to have a “face-to-face” meeting; where that will happen, and when, still has to be worked out.

Also still to be agreed on by the two sides is where to hold the resumed formal negotiations, plus prospective “goodwill measures” including the release of detained NDFP consultants who would take part in the negotiations.

For its part, the CPP-NPA has expressed willingness to declare a unilateral ceasefire this Christmas season, to take effect from Dec. 20 or 21 until year-end. And, depending on Duterte’s decision, the peace talks might resume in the latter part of January.

Along with Hernani Braganza (who had teamed up with him in previous back-channel talks), Bello held discussions, on Dec. 7 and 8, with the NDFP negotiators, led by Sison and Luis Jalandoni. Present at the meetings was a representative of the Norwegian government, the third-party facilitator.

Confidently, Bello reaffirmed that Duterte had not abandoned his dream for lasting peace, whenever he cancelled, suspended, or terminated the peace process. “There were different approaches, but he never abandoned it,” he said of his old friend. “Peace is his lasting legacy to our country.”

In media interviews, Sison has welcomed Duterte’s decision to send Bello once more to talk with him and the NDFP panel members. But he was fully aware that, within the Cabinet, there is continuing strong opposition to resuming the peace talks, specifically from the internal security cluster, mainly constituted by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.

For instance, Lorenzana has expressed “misgivings” on resuming the peace talks abroad. He even strongly reacted to Sison’s consistent stand against holding the peace talks in the Philippines, saying the latter is in no position to demand that the negotiations be held in a neutral foreign country.

Promptly, Sison reminded Lorenzana that under the standing agreement between the GRP and NDFP, as stated in the 1995 Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), the peace negotiations should be held in a neutral foreign venue.

This issue arose because Duterte had wanted Sison to agree to hold the peace negotiations in the Philippines with the verbal assurrance, according to presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, that the NDFP representatives participating in the talks would not be arrested. Sison, however, stated that the NDFP cannot trust such assurance of “no-arrest” declaration from the government.

The Duterte government, Sison further said, has to prove that it is not merely trying to lure the NDFP in a trap whereby, in the event of a deadlock or disruption in the negotiations, government security forces can arrest them on trumped-up charges – as it has done in the past.

(In February 2017, when he first “cancelled” the talks in a fit of anger and the AFP declared an “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA, Duterte ordered the NDFP consultants – who had been released on bail in August 2016, thus enabling them to participate in the peace talks – to return to Manila so he could throw them back in prison. It turned out that they already had gone back to the Philippines, but had secured themselves against being re-arrested.)

After the discussions with Bello last week, Sison remarked, “There is hard work ahead for the negotiators and consultants… for the peace negotiations to move forward.” Barring “disruptions and interruptions,” he expressed confidence that the heads of the negotiating panels – Bello for the GRP and Fidel V. Agcaoili for the NDFP – “can do their work effectively and at the proper pace.” Both of them, he noted, have proved themselves to be “conscientious and competent.”

Truculently, however, the AFP spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, recently said the AFP will not push for a ceasefire with the NPA during the Christmas season, as was traditionally done in the past. Instead, he added, the military will continue to carry out operations against the NPA even with Duterte’s wish to start talking peace again.

Why? Because, Arevalo claimed, the NPA took advantage of past ceasefires “to do the’four R’s’ – recruit, refurbish, regroup and reserve.”

Arevalo was simply echoing what Defense chief Lorenzana had earlier expressed, in far worse terms, about ceasefires – which, for the record, the militarists have persistently pushed and caused the disruptions in the peace talks under the Duterte government. In April 2018, Lorenzana blathered, “While NDFP representatives negotiate with government in a foreign land, their armed comrades perpetrate deceptive and coercive recruitment...”

Again, Lorenzana and Arevalo ought to know, or must be reminded, that recruitment and related non-offensive activities during a ceasefire period don’t constitute violation of the ceasefire.

Ceasefire mainly calls for the cessation of “offensive military operations” by one party against the other.

Moreover, it’s reasonable to assume that any revolutionary movement engaging in negotiations to achieve a just and lasting peace feels duty bound to preserve, even to expand, its organization, never allowing it to be idle throughout the process.

The rationale for this can be understood: If and when the negotiations arrive at a final agreement to end the armed conflict, the two sides assume “joint and separate responsibility” in its implementation – as stipulated in all major signed agreements. This would require an organization to be fit and capable of ensuring that the agreements would all be properly and satisfactorily carried out.

Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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