In late April, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared he would open a 60-day window in which the government would seek to re-start peace negotiations with communist rebels, and attempt to entice their exiled leader back to the country's shores.

But how sincere is he, and what hope is there for any such negotiations to succeed?

Talks between the government of the Philippines and those waging an armed revolution have waxed and waned since former president Corazon Aquino first came round to the idea of holding dialogues in 1986. Many of the 40 rounds of negotiations that have taken place amid Asia’s longest running communist revolution were brokered by Norway, as appears to be case in Duterte's latest effort at outreach.

None have ultimately succeeded.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the stop-start cycle common to the talks has accelerated dramatically, with the administration already having cancelled the talks three times since coming to power in June 2016.


Reuters / TPG

Protesters hold up banners as members and supporters of an underground communist movement march along a street in Manila, Philippines March 31, 2017.

Prelude to peace?

The rebels are led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) along with its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the party’s united front organization.

During formal engagements with the government, the NDFP is usually the representative of the revolutionaries as it is supposed to encompass the broadest spectrum of revolutionary Filipinos.

In November, Duterte formally cancelled peace talks via Proclamation 360, citing the persistent attacks by the Maoist NPA guerrillas on state authorities. Shortly after, Duterte released Proclamation 374 branding the CPP and NPA as terrorist groups.

All Filipinos, whether they are aware of the fact or not, have an important stake in these talks succeeding. The parleys hold the key to resolving an armed conflict that has raged for almost 50 years and claimed tens of thousands of lives. At the root of the rebels' grievances lies crippling poverty, landlessness and the oppression experienced by the most marginalized people in the country.

But why is Duterte interested in reviving talks less than six months after cancelling them? One reason may be a desire to follow through on his campaign promise to resume talks, despite having already done so to no avail. He has recently come under fire for a slew of unfulfilled platforms and subsequently his approval ratings have dropped, while still remaining high in a country where strong support for incumbents is the norm.

Through the fire

Even amid a conflict with such a multifaceted and deep history, it is the most recent developments that set the tone. For the revolutionaries, the Duterte administration's implementation of martial law in May 2017 on the island of Mindanao, roughly one-third of the country, on the proviso of countering ISIS-affiliated extremists, crossed a red line.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Naked members of the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) fraternity wearing masks attend a protest against extrajudicial killings and for the lifting of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao, at the University of the Philippines in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines Dec. 1, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

The NDFP said in a statement that “Such draconian measures [are] evidence of the increasingly weak and fractious ruling state and the worsening crisis of the entire ruling system.”

A few months later, Joma Sison, founding chairperson of the CPP and Chief Political Consultant of the NDFP -- and the man whom Duterte wishes to return to the Philippines for talks -- called the president a madman with an “obsession with martial law and mass murder.”

Peace talks then became viable after a series of back channel talks between the two parties, but ultimately failed because of the above-mentioned proclamations, which led the NPA to call for intensified attacks.

None of this was helped by the issue of an arrest order for Sison, in exile in the Netherlands, if he were to set foot in the Philippines. That Duterte and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later admitted that their declaration of martial law in Mindanao was intended to crush the rebellion in its stronghold did noting to help nurture trust.

Along the way, military and police forces have continued to commit atrocities against the Filipino people. According to a tally made by human rights group Karapatan, state entities have killed 113 activists, conducted 256 illegal and/or warrantless arrests, as well as 39,623 instances of using public places for military purposes, among other crimes.



Protesters burn a cube effigy with the faces of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and President Rodrigo Duterte during a rally near the Presidential Palace, Sept. 21, 2017 in Manila.

The group said that “these violations are part of a concerted effort to repress individuals, organizations and communities vocal against the government’s anti-people policies. The victims of rights abuses have raised legitimate demands, yet were met with repression.”

They specifically mentioned the violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), which was agreed as a part of peace negotiations during the Estrada regime in 2000, and outline how both the state and the CPP should conduct themselves in times of war. The underlying principle is to avoid arresting, murdering or in other way involving civilians.

Contrary to these stipulations, Duterte announced in January of 2018 that he plans to crush activists for supporting the revolutionary movement even if they do not bear arms.

More recently, the president released a list of 649 individuals tagged as terrorists under the Human Security Act. This is essentially a hit list targeting unarmed civilians, activists and social workers thought to be associated with supporters or top ranking officials of the CPP-NPA.

The list includes those with former ties to the communist movement and even some prominent in the international community, such as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Joan Carling co-convener of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Major Group on Sustainable Development and Beverly Longid of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation.

As a result, Ruby Lacadman, an urban poor organizer, was charged with murder and immediately arrested on March 29 on the basis of being the first name on the list.

Duterte thus enters the negotiations with work to do to prove he is sincerely interested in pursuing peace.

'Talking while fighting'

As NDFP Chief Negotiator Fidel Agcaoili pointed out over a year ago, there is precedent for “talking while fighting” in this conflict, notably during the period between 1992 and 1998 under President Ramos.

At the center of any forthcoming discussions should be the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER), which the NDFP drafted in 2017 to serve as a roadmap towards addressing the key grievances of the poorest and most disenfranchised people in the country.

The CASER is a hefty document, with both sides having their own version, but the NDFP draft calls for the re-distribution of land monopolies, the creation of vital domestic industries and employment, the implementation of a mass housing program, and a rejection of all foreign military bases and related treaties.

In all fairness to the government peace panel, at the onset of the renewed talks during the start of Duterte’s term, some significant if not unprecedented developments were achieved. Both agreed, in principle, to freely distribute land to the peasants, a measure to which no previous administration had even come close to implementing

Still, resuming talks with a terrorist tag hanging over the rebels and hundreds of political prisoners still in detention seems unlikely. Sison has also pointed out that throughout this entire process, officials seem to have been more interested in the pacification and surrender of the reds than any sort of peace accord.

Yet with his popularity faltering and the increasingly rabid persecution of activists and peace advocates appearing to reflect his own paranoia, Duterte the strongman is now experiencing a fear unparalleled during his tenure as commander in chief, a fear that could well be the main motivation behind his renewed openness to talking with the revolutionary movement.

However, through nobody’s fault but his own, the sincerity with which he has extended the invitation will be doubted all the way.

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Editor: David Green