The Philippine government and communist rebels on Thursday entered the third round of talks aimed at ending one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies, warning that reaching a peace deal may take longer than what the government had expected.
The Philippine government has been hoping to strike a peace deal with the communists within a year, but Jose Maria Sison, chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, said this may not be possible.
The third round of talks in Rome, Italy will see the two sides discussing contentious issues, such as the socioeconomic, political and constitutional reforms, and the end of hostilities and disposition of forces.
In his opening for the third round of talks, Sison estimated that a final peace deal can be achieved by 2020, or four years into Duterte's presidency. He argued that substantive issues must first be resolved and the comprehensive agreements and reforms be successfully implemented before any peace deal is signed.
Sison said if the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) and Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms (CAPCR) are implemented well, these will be the basis of the Comprehensive Agreement on the End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces.
"The advantage of having the CASER and CAPCR signed and approved by the principals within the first two years of the Duterte government is that these agreements shall be implemented for at least two years before the end of said government," Sison said.
"If implemented to the satisfaction of the Filipino people and the NDFP, these agreements shall lay the full basis of the Comprehensive Agreement on the End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces as early as 2020-21."
Luis Jalandoni, former chief negotiator for the communists, echoed Sison's position, saying reaching a peace deal within a year is "unrealistic."
"Sa implementasyon, makikita ng teaong bayan ang effects ng peace negotiations. Itong agreements, sasabihin nandiyan na, ngayon iniimplement. Sa pag-implement ng agrarian reform, eh hindi naman ganun ka-simple 'yan," Jalandoni told ABS-CBN News.
"Kailangan may kongkretong karanasan ang taong bayan na mayroong fruits, nilalagay natin 'yan sa timeline. Dahil kung walang ganung concrete proof, experience ng taong bayan, mahirap pumasok sa talagang comprehensive peace agreement na talagang wala nang away."
Sison said the reciprocal working committees of the two sides have fleshed out the common outline of the CASER.
He said the two sides aim to reconcile their respective drafts and agree on how to accelerate the unification of the drafts by holding sessions before the fourth round of talks.
The reciprocal working groups on Political and Constitutional Reforms of both panels, on the other hand, have already finished and exchanged their drafts of the CAPCR, Sison said.
“They have advanced ahead of schedule. There is plenty of time to enrich and polish these drafts even while CASER is still being negotiated. It will not be surprising if after the signing of the CASER by the panels, it will take one or two rounds of talks or some three months after the forging or CASER to finish the CAPCR for signing by the panels,” he said.
The two panels resumed talks amid growing impatience from the communists over the Philippine government’s failure to release nearly 400 jailed guerrillas.
In a news conference after the opening ceremonies of third round of talks, the communists’ chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili called out the government for not doing enough to cause the release of the detainees.
“The GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) executive [branch] has full control over prosecution, the arm of the government that files cases and prosecute. If there's really commitment or interest to move the peace negotiations forward and even establish a more stable ceasefire, this can be overcome,” Agcaoili said.
Agcaoili’s government counterpart, Silvestre Bello III, has been arguing that President Rodrigo Duterte, who has vigorously pushed for the end of the communist rebellion, has no full power to order the release of the estimated 400 inmates.
“Our president is committed to release all political prisoners. However, these releases has to go through legal and judicial processes,” Bello said.
Bello said the president can grant pardon for inmates, but he noted this is only applicable to those who have been given final convictions.
“For those with cases pending, they have to go through the process,” Bello said.
Agcaoili, in response, noted that many of the detained guerrillas have been languishing in jail for a long time, in violation of their right to speedy trial.
The contentious issue on the release of political prisoners, as well the supposed encroachment of military forces in rebel-held areas and other civilian facilities, are threatening to cause the collapse of the unilateral ceasefires declared by both sides even before they could reach an agreement on a bilateral one.
The Philippine government, however, said there can be no violation of ceasefire since there are no rules to begin with.
A bilateral ceasefire is deemed more stable as it comes with a set of rules that both parties will have to follow.
In his opening statement, Bello said he was hopeful that the two sides will be able to hammer out a bilateral ceasefire agreement in the third round of talks.
“I am one with President Duterte’s optimism that in this round of talks, we are able to finalize and approve the joint ceasefire agreement. Towards these agenda, the GRP panel has come prepared to exchange and discuss our drafts on said agreements,” Bello said.
Agcaoili, for his part, said he does not know what will happen to the unilateral ceasefires should the two sides fail to resolve the pressing issues.
“We don’t know what will happen with the respective ceasefires on the assumption that nothing is settled or resolved in this round about the outstanding issues that have been raised,” Agcaoili said.
He, however, noted that “in the past, we used to have fighting while negotiating.”
“The peace negotiation will continue, [but] what will be disrupted will be the ceasefire. But there's still hope in this round,” he said. - with reports from Danny Buenafe, ABS-CBN News