Peace talks must resume despite ceasefire imbroglio

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Above the din of blaming and vituperations in the imbroglio on alleged violations at the start of the unilateral-reciprocal ceasefire declarations separately issued, first by the National Democratic Front and then by the Duterte government, on Dec. 23, peace advocates are firmly reminding both sides that mutual goodwill must prevail.

The rationale of the ceasefire is soberly defined in a joint statement, signed by the negotiators of both sides and the Norwegian government’s third-party facilitator in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on December 21. It says:

“The ceasefire [declarations] are intended to generate a positive environment conducive to the holding of informal talks preparatory to the formal meeting to resume the peace negotiations. These shall be measures of goodwill and confidence building during the traditional celebrations of Christmas and New Year holidays.”

But then two incidents occurred on Dec. 23, wherein a unit of the New People’s Army ambushed a platoon of the Philippine Army in Labo, Camarines Sur at 9 in the morning and another NPA unit did the same to a PNP Mobile Company in Tubugan, Iloilo, 30 minutes later.

Both the AFP and the PNP accused the NPA of having violated the ceasefire declarations, which were supposed to have taken effect at midnight (Dec. 22-23). The ceasefire will run until midnight of Jan. 7, 2020.

However, a CPP statement on Dec. 24 said the two incidents were not violations of the ceasefire but were “defensive actions by the NPA units involved, in the face of armed attacks and sustained military operations” by the AFP and PNP.

Fidel V. Agcaoili, NDFP peace panel head, affirmed the CPP statement on Christmas day.  He pointed out that the CPP ceasefire announcement qualified that it would only take effect after the GRP issued a reciprocal ceasefire order, as this was the common understanding of the two sides at the signing of the Dec. 21 joint statement. Ergo, it was explained, absent a written order by the GRP to the AFP and the PNP furnished the NDFP, there was no effective ceasefire at the time the ambushes occurred.

It was only on Dec. 26, at 3:54 in the afternoon (Philippine time; 8:54 a.m. in the Netherlands), Agcaoili announced yesterday, that the NDFP offfice received from the GRP the copies of the Suspension of Offensive Military Operations (SOMO) from the AFP and the Suspension of Police Operations (SOPO) from the PNP. Technically, from the NDFP viewpoint, that’s when the ceasefire took effect.

Its interesting to note that after the Tubugan incident, PNP officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Archie Francisco Gamboa was quoted in the Philippine STAR as saying that the ambush could be the NPA’s response to a series of massive operations in Tubugan over the past days. This affirms what the CPP said in its Dec. 24 statement.

Duterte’s security forces are under pressure to continuously pursue his “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA, which he has described, in a Malacanang speech in September, in his inimitable style as: “Walang hintuan. Walang hintuan. Magpalit-palit yung isang batalyon diyan na walang gamit na wala masyadong kalaban… Pagka bone-weary na ang mga sundalo, palit na naman. Tuloy-tuloy. At kung maaari, lumaban sila nang husto kasi hindi ako magtanggap ng surrender.”

This could also explain why early this month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (who oversees the AFP) and DILG Secretary Eduardo Año (who supervises the PNP) said they would not recommend a ceasefire with the NPA for the holiday season. In a speech on Dec. 9, Lorenzana said:

“If there’s a ceasefire, the soldiers go back to their barracks because the operations are stopped. But the NPA are recruiting in the villages to increase their power. Let us just not enter into a ceasefire.” He added that there would be no letup in the conduct of intensified military operations against the NPA.

It’s remarkable that in such tenuous situation, for once President Duterte appeared to have ignored his two top military/police advisers and agreed to the ceasefire recommended by the GRP and NDFP peace panels.

That notwithstanding, in a press briefing on Dec. 26, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo condemned the two NPA attacks previously mentioned. However, he told reporters that President Duterte wanted the NDFP to provide an explanation for the incidents. “Since the President has always been open, giving a little window in the pursuit of peace, he will wait for the explanation from them.”

Panelo also said Duterte wanted Jose Ma. Sison, the NDFP chief political consultant, to come to the Philippines for a “one-on-one talk” with him, ahead of the resumption of the formal peace talks. But Sison, reiterating his firm stand on this matter, said he would be putting the prospect of peace negotiations at risk if he agreed to come to the Philippines. He remained open to one-on-one talk with Duterte in a neutral venue, which could be arranged, he said.

At this mid-point in the two-week unilateral-reciprocal ceasfire, neither side has declared an intent to withdraw its ceasefire declaration. Besides the two incidents in Bicol and Iloilo, no other military offensive action by either side has been reported.

There’s thus space for reasonable expectation that goodwill and confidence-building moves can be undertaken in the remaining days. Let’s just hope that honest-to-goodness talks will reopen soon. May the coming year see the fulfillment of our earnest wishes for meaningful peace.

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