MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday night told the government peace panel negotiating with communist rebels that formal talks between the two sides would not resume until the New People’s Army (NPA) ceases attacks on state troops.
The decision came just before suspected NPA rebels attacked a convoy of the Presidential Security Group in Arakan town, North Cotabato Wednesday morning, shooting dead a member of the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit and wounding four of Duterte's security men.
The President made the decision during his meeting with members of the government peace panel, led by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.
"During their meeting held at Malacañang Palace, the President directed the government panel negotiating with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) not to resume formal peace talks unless the Reds agree to stop their attacks against government troops in Mindanao," the Palace said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Duterte has blasted the NPA, the armed wing of the Philippine communist movement, for attacking state troops despite ongoing peace talks between the government and the NDFP.
The President has also lamented the NPA’s collection of so-called “revolutionary taxes”.
The government suspended the fifth round of formal talks with the communist rebels in May, citing continuing offensives by the NPA.
Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, however, said backchannel talks between the two sides, tentatively scheduled on July 21 and 22, would still push through.
“We will travel to meet up [with the NDFP panel] before the SONA (State of the Nation Address). It can be positive, it can be negative,” Dureza said in a television interview.
“Hopefully, we will have a positive report from Sec. Bebot Bello when they are done with the backchannel [talks],” he added.
Dureza said if the backchannel talks succeed, formal talks may resume in August, where the contentious issue on socioeconomic reforms and the possible signing of an interim unilateral ceasefire will be tackled.
Ending the decades old communist insurgency has been a top priority for Duterte, but talks have been on and off under the feisty leader, who has accused the communists of being two-faced because of its continued armed attacks against government forces.
MINDANAO MARTIAL LAW
Duterte’s decision to extend martial law in Mindanao, currently gripped by the long-drawn conflict between state troops and Islamic State-linked terrorists in Marawi City, has also threatened to scuttle negotiations between the two sides.
In suspending the talks on May 27, government cited the CPP’s call for the NPA to intensify its operations against state troops in the wake of Duterte’s May 23 martial law proclamation.
Militant forces are claiming that cases of human rights violations have increased since Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. The government has denied this.
“As to the fear of military abuses in the event of an extended martial law, the same is misplaced. There have been no reported cases of abuses committed by the military and the police in the almost two months of martial law in Mindanao,” Duterte’s chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, said in a separate statement Wednesday.
“[Duterte] is against any kind of abuse of power by the men in uniform. There will be hell to pay for those who commit atrocities in the course of implementing martial law as they will not go unpunished,” he said.
The Communist Party of the Philippines also slammed the decision of the President to ask Congress for the extension of martial law until the end of the year.
The CPP denounced the President’s plan to extend martial law for another five months, again directing the NPA to “strengthen itself nationwide by carrying out armed counteractions and offensives across the country to defeat the Mindanao martial law and nationwide all-out war.”
In response, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella asked the CPP to “reciprocate the government’ gestures of goodwill by ending their extortion and criminal activities and re-directing their energy to help eradicate terrorism and violent extremism in Mindanao.”