How shall we read this latest situation? What can we expect to happen next?
Having dispatched his peace adviser Jesus Dureza and a team of government negotiators to Europe and allowed the travel of NDFP negotiating panel member Benito Tiamzon and two consultants to participate in back-channel talks, President Duterte made a U-turn and ordered the AFP and PNP to “wage war” on the NPA, using all their “available assets.”
All things considered, the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations – which Mr. Duterte had “cancelled” on Feb. 4 in a blustering fit – will most likely continue.
Why so? Let’s first review the recent developments:
= March 3: After visiting the wake of two AFP soldiers killed in an encounter with the NPA in Mindanao, as he had done on Feb. 4, the President expressed pain over the soldiers’ death but said he was willing to talk peace again. He was quoted by reporters as saying:
“We need to talk from the heart. I’m ready as long as we communicate well. I’m ready to resume the ceasefire, but this time I want it to be sincere. Back then [in February], there was a ceasefire but my soldiers were killed.” He added, “I really get hurt when someone from the other side dies. These are Filipinos. Me, I’m in the government and I have a job to do. Please understand that… I just want peace.”
He went further: “I do not want war. It’s a waste of money. Instead of buying bullets, I can buy machines for giving away to people to help them. For me no one will win in a war. If we Filipinos fight against fellow Filipinos nobody wins. The people lose, the Philippines loses.”
Mr. Duterte called on the NPA to release the six soldiers and policemen held captive by the NPA. (The latter had in fact announced its readiness to release the “prisoners of war” as soon as the government ordered, as in previous instances, a suspension of military and police operations in areas where the releases would take place). He also said he wanted the NPA to stop its revolutionary taxation.
= March 4: Peace adviser Dureza said in a radio interview he was awaiting the President’s instructions on the possible continuation of the peace talks. He clarified that Mr. Duterte was not imposing any condition but was simply expressing his “wishes.” There are no preconditions for going back to the negotiating table, he emphasized.
= March 6: The President told reporters that back-channel were ongoing to discuss how and when to continue the formal peace negotiations. But he declined to provide details so as not to “spoil the developments.” “Hang on, hang on,” he assured reporters, “I must admit there is back-channelling.”
= March 8: At about 6 a.m. NPA fighters ambushed town policemen and members of the provincial Scene of the Crime Operatives (Soco) in the upland barangay of Sibayan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur. Four policemen were killed and one was wounded. They reportedly were on their way to verify a murder case when ambushed.
= March 9: Speaking before a crowd in Bansalan late afternoon, after visiting the wake of the slain policemen, President Duterte ordered the AFP and PNP to “wage war” on the NPA, apparently in retaliation for the ambush-killing. The media quoted him thus:
“There are no peace talks yet. It’s totally absent. So in the meantime, I would just ask the armed forces and the police to just go ahead and wage a war against them. Anything goes.” He further said, “I will allow the police and the military this time to use all available assets.”
The reports said Mr. Duterte referred to using, among other war-making assets, the AFP’s newly acquired fighting jets from South Korea to drop rocket-bombs on the NPA fighters.
“Go ahead, flatten the hills,” he ordered the state security forces. Should the bombings incur collateral damage (as usually happens) – meaning, the residents in rural communities with NPA presence suffer casualties, injuries or property damages as a result – he added, “Pasensya (sorry).”
Earlier Thursday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a speech at the National Defense College, announced that peace adviser Dureza had left the night before to conduct back-channel talks in Europe, followed by Tiamzon, with his wife, Wilma, and Vicente Ladlad.
“We in the military and the defense [department] welcome this development,” Lorenzana explained, “because we also want to stop the fighting in the hinterlands, in the rural areas so that we can bring development.”
The Duterte government, he said, is aware of the public clamor for the continuation of the GRP-NDFP peace talks. He also took note of the fact that more than 100 congressmen had signed a House resolution to that effect.
It needs pointing out that the government soldiers and policemen died in encounters with the NPA in areas of the armed conflict or “war zones” in the AFP’s pursuit of “all-out war” declared last month. Hence, it appears that President Duterte himself has been holding back from condemning the NPA actions. In fact, replying to reporters’ queries, he conceded that the Bansalan attack on the policemen was “not an overkill” while remarking that the ambush was a “well-laid trap.” (In contrast, the killing of a soldier in February caused him to flare up and cancel the peace talks.)
The President also premised his recent order to wage war against the NPA “in the meantime”on the fact that “there are no peace talks yet.” His statement implies that, should the back-channel talks result in an agreement to continue the stalled peace negotiations, his March 8 order will be withdrawn.
Let’s wait for the developments on this matter, quite soon.
Published in The Philippine Star
March 11, 2017