The GRP-NDFP peace talks appear to be hanging by a thread.
The delegation from the Government of the Republic of the Philippines withdrew from participation in the fifth round of talks scheduled to open last May 27 in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, upon instructions of their principal, President Rodrigo R. Duterte. Despite frenzied attempts to prevent the cancellation of the fifth round, or salvage it by means of informal talks to try to iron out differences, achieve some progress, even if tentative, in the substantive agenda so as to make good use of the time and resources, Duterte chose to scuttle it.
More ominously, while GRP chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, stated categorically that only this round would be aborted while the peace talks would continue, Duterte subsequently said in a speech he gave at the founding anniversary of the Philippine Navy that he would order the rearrest of the NDFP consultants out on bail to participate in the peace negotiations because, to put it mildly, he questioned the sincerity of the NDFP side in negotiating peace.
In response, NDFP Chief Negotiator Fidel Agcaoili stated in no uncertain terms that should the GRP disregard and set aside the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), then the peace talks could no longer continue. Both the JASIG and the peace negotiations would in effect or de facto be terminated.
What brought about this unexpected impasse considering that the mood going into the fifth round was quite upbeat with the success of four rounds of formal talks and progress in the work of reconciling the drafts on CASER through unilateral meetings and bilateral consultations between rounds?
Unfortunately, intervening events — the Marawi crisis and the declaration of martial law in Mindanao — served not only to complicate and confound the situation, the related subsequent actions and counteractions of the two sides have set into motion a train of events that could end up torpedoing the GRP-NDFP peace talks all together.
According to the GRP panel, Duterte and the entire Cabinet Security Cluster took umbrage at the call of the CPP to the NPA to intensify armed offensives against military and police forces in response to the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. This, they said, was despite unprecedented and bold steps that Duterte had taken to push the peace talks forward.
According to the NDFP, the CPP order was in response to heightened military offensives and mounting human rights violations before and after the martial law declaration coupled with the statement of Defense Secretary Lorenzana at the very outset that the NPA was also targeted by the Mindanao-wide martial law. Moreover, notwithstanding the clarification of GRP Chief Negotiator Bello that this was not the case, field reports continued to be sent to the NDFP belying his claim.
Secretary Dureza spoke of returning to the negotiating table only when “there are clear indications that an enabling environment conducive to a just and sustainable peace… shall prevail.”
In effect, the GRP continues to demand no less than an indefinite bilateral cease-fire even before any agreement has been forged on the substantive agenda of the peace talks, most especially on socioeconomic reforms, and before the issue of the release of political prisoners has been squarely addressed by the GRP in accord with its obligations under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).
Moreover, the GRP panel made it clear at the very beginning that their principal would only allow the fifth round to open if the CPP leadership retracts its order to the NPA to conduct more offensives, even after the Chief Political Consultant and the NDFP Negotiating Panel had publicly announced that they had asked the CPP leadership to reconsider the order. The NDFP panel replied that it had no mandate to itself retract the order, and that it was impossible to receive an immediate reply from the CPP leadership, especially with intensified AFP operations targeting CPP-NPA units in the countryside.
The GRP Panel instead proposed that the two panels issue a joint statement condemning terrorism and the Maute group and for cooperating on countermeasures against the Maute attack in Marawi. The NDFP Panel promptly crafted its draft for said joint statement and submitted this to the GRP Panel. But rather than give the NDFP its corresponding draft, the GRP Panel announced that they had been ordered to pack up and go home, and not to engage even in informal talks.
With each passing day, the humanitarian crisis escalates in Marawi City where an estimated two thousand civilians are still trapped inside without food and the military’s aerial bombardment has killed or wounded not just civilians but even soldiers. The military’s claim that it has contained the Maute group and is now engaged in mopping up operations appears so far to be an overstatement. The GRP seems caught between having to justify martial law by amplifying the terrorist threat from the Maute/ASG in the entire Mindanao while claiming to have everything under control by utilizing its draconian measures.
The GRP is also in a curious bind with contradictory statements being issued about whether the CPP-NPA forces are also the object of martial law even as the military is emboldened to prosecute its “all-out war” against the NPA with complete disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law resulting once more in mass evacuations of civilians, extrajudicial killings, and illegal arrests. Meanwhile, workers on strike, peasants struggling to reclaim land grabbed farms, activists protesting martial law and ordinary folk who happen to be Moro or who are unable to produce an identification card are subjected to harassment, warrantless arrests and detention.
There is anxiety and dread over terrorist threats spilling over to other parts of the country. Equally, or even more so, there is anxiety and dread over martial law being extended to the Visayas and Luzon or to its prolongation beyond sixty days. In Manila, panic over a possible ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in a luxury hotel and casino, apparently prevented employees and guests from escaping deadly fumes from fires ignited by a lone gunman who police now aver was unlikely to have been a terrorist.
The economic toll of Duterte’s martial law declaration in Mindanao and nationally has yet to be taken into account.
In these most unsettling of times, the GRP-NDFP peace talks hopefully will not be an unintended casualty.
The talks now appear to be where they were at between the March backchannel communique and the eve of the 4th round, when the NDFP was waiting for the signal from the GRP for the two sides to simultaneously announce unilateral cease-fires.
The difference is that now, the NDFP has proposed instead some form of cooperation with the GRP in fighting terrorism and the Maute group in particular, and the response of GRP President Duterte, despite acknowledging this in passing as a goodwill measure, is that the NDFP should first unilaterally and formally declare that they will stop fighting the government before he sends back his negotiators to the negotiating table.
This is definitely a backslide from the fourth round and into the situation where the status of the peace negotiations and the JASIG are both unclear.
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
June 5, 2017