By Rocky Nazareno, Argyll Cyrus B. Geducos, and Francis T. Wakefield
The fifth round of peace negotiations between the Philippine government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) now hangs in the balance following a mixed up right at the pre-opening of the talks yesterday in Noordwijk Ann-Zee, The Netherlands.
It all started when NDFP Senior Consultant Luis Jalandoni stepped out of the pre-opening meeting to announce to media that the GRP had “broken off” from the fifth round of talks, a disclosure which GRP Peace Panel Chairman Silvestre Bello III tried to play down.
Jalandoni cited the failure of the NDFP to heed the recommendation of its Senior Political Consultant Jose Maria Sison for the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to recall its order to the New People’s Army (NPA) to intensify offensives in the wake of President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao as the reason for the pullout.
“Bine-break off nila yung talks, hindi kami (They’re breaking off from the talks, not us),” Jalandoni told mediamen.
He said the NDFP could not agree with requests made by the GRP for them to ask the CPP-NPA based in the Philippines to halt intensified armed operations, citing abuses by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in 164 towns and 43 provinces in the country.
“We have to be very active to protect the people,” he said.
In a press conference called just a few minutes later, Bello said the GRP members were taken aback by after Jalandoni’s disclosure, saying both sides just agreed on a “10-minute break” to wait for the NDFP’s response to their request that Sison’s recommendation be adopted.
But instead of returning to the negotiating table after the break, Bello said, Jalandoni went to media to announce the GRP pullout.
“And we’re still waiting. It could be 10 minutes, and two hours. You know that in this kind of negotiations, we have to be patient. Besides, we have travelled thousands of kilometers (just to get to the negotiating table), so a few more hours won’t hurt,” Bello said
NDFP peace panel head Fidel Agcaoili was more optimistic on the talks, saying the fifth round of negotiation is still on.
In fact, Agcaoili said, both panels were to convene at 4 p.m. yesterday on the prodding of third party facilitator Ambassador Elisabeth Sluttum of the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG).
“We intend to sit down again. Find constructive solutions that could be made between the two of us,” he said.
Agcaoli also pointed out that it was not only Sison, but the NDFP peace panel, which had requested the CPP and NPA in the Philippines to reconsider “further intensifying” offensives against government forces in the face of the implementation of martial law in Mindanao.
What complicated matters more was when the GRP released the opening statement that Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza was supposed to deliver at the formal opening of the fifth round of talks.
“The government is now left without any other recourse but to announce – with due respects to out counterparts and to our facilitator, the Royal Norwegian Government (RNG) – that it will not proceed to participate in the scheduled fifth round of peace negotiations,” said Dureza, reading from his prepared statement.
Why GRP is pulling out
Dureza’s prepared statement was confirmed in Manila by Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, who said the decision was reached when the CPP ordered the NPA to accelerate and intensify its attacks against the government due to President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
Duterte declared martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao for 60 days due to the ongoing clashes between the Maute Group and government security forces in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.
Dureza underscored that Duterte’s declaration of martial law was “principally directed at extremists and terrorists who openly and defiantly challenged the government and put to harm the Filipino people triggered by the still ongoing violent incident in the Islamic city of Marawi in Mindanao.”
“We question the sincerity of the CPP-NPA-NDFP, if they truly are in pursuit of peaceful coexistence,” Abella said in a statement Saturday evening.
“The Duterte administration would rather pursue the path of genuine dialogue to build a nation worthy of its citizens,” he added.
Bello also told mediamen that he could not comment on Abella’s remarks from the Palace, saying he has yet to receive any formal communication from the presidential spokesman.
“If there is any announcement that (the fifth round) is off, it will come from this panel,” he maintained.
But Dureza reiterated that his statement and that of Malacañang was final. “That’s it, it’s cancelled as what I said from my statement.”
Dureza said the government side was pulling out of the talks “until such time as there are clear indications that an enabling environment conducive to achieving just and sustainable peace in the land through peace negotiations across this table shall prevail.”
Apart from the recent pronouncements from the CPP-NPA that were made in connection with the martial law declaration, Dureza also noted the “noticeable upscale of incidents of offensive attacks by the NPAs throughout the country” and the “seeming perception of the bigger public that these NPA operations are in open and public defiance of President Duterte, who has consistently accommodated them in unprecedented ways” as among the “serious challenges” to Duterte’s commitment to pursue the talks.
He also pointed out that there have been “public admissions of some panel members of the CPP, NPA, and NDF that they have no control over their forces on the ground.”
Duterte likewise cited “the sudden and perceptible erosion of public support to the peace talks with strong messages received from the public to altogether stop peace negotiations.”
In the same press conference, the GRP said emphasized that only the fifth round of the talks will be cancelled should the NDFP fail to respond to its request, and that all standing agreements, including the safety and immunity guarantees for NDFP negotiators, will continue to be honored.
Both sides also remain open to return to the negotiating table that could possibly be restarted with another fifth round of talks.
“We could always talk and fight, as we did in the time of President FVR (Fidel V. Ramos) when we returned to the peace table,” said Jalandoni.
“Let’s all stay the course in this not-so-easy road to peace in our land,” Dureza said.
In the meantime, both parties are staying put. None has checked out of their hotel rooms, no one has re-booked any flight.
But as of 1 p.m. here (7 p.m. Manila time), there was still no formal response from the NDFP.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned the NPA not to get involved with the current Marawi City crisis, reiterating that the implementation of martial law in Mindanao will not target local communists.
“Gusto ko lang liwanagin ang mensahe ko sa CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines)-NPA. Huwag na kayong makigulo pa sa nangyayari ngayon sa Mindanao [I would like to make my statement clear to the CPP-NPA. Do not involve yourselves in what’s happening to Mindanao],” Lorenzana said.
“Do not force the government’s hand. Immediately stop all illegal activities and abide by the true spirit of the peace process. This is the only way we can move forward,” he added.
Lorenzana issued the statement in response to Sison’s claim that the martial law implementation in Mindanao will also affect the NPA.
“We would like to make it clear that in the implementation of martial law in Mindanao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will not specifically target the New People’s Army as alleged by NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison,” Lorenzana said.