MANILA—President Rodrigo Duterte’s last-ditch attempt to resuscitate peace talks with Maoist rebels will require both sides to rein in hardliners and to be open to negotiate despite continued hostilities on the ground, the government panel’s former ceasefire chief said Tuesday.
Panels apparently include "hawks" highly suspicious of the other side’s sincerity, despite gains in the peace process under Duterte, and favored the use of force.
“Kailangan magtulungan yung both sides across the table to knock down the hardliners,” said Francisco Lara Jr., who stepped down as head of the government’s ceasefire committee last year.
“Magtulungan tayo against our worst enemies, which are those people in our own side.”
Duterte earlier announced that he was giving peace talks another try because “time is running out,” describing it as his “last card.”
Lara said the president’s decision might have been triggered by the realization that he could not end the insurgency within his term without returning to the negotiation track.
“He will try whatever he can using the other formula, which is the peace process... so that he can be seen at least to have contributed to the peace process in the country,” Lara told ABS-CBN News.
Resuming formal talks will require both sides to overcome roadblocks that scuttled negotiations last year, including the government’s subsequent demand to hold discussions in the Philippines.
The rebels insisted on a foreign neutral ground as had been the practice in past negotiations.
The president was also adamant about a bilateral ceasefire agreement before reopening negotiations, which he terminated on a number of occasions partly because of continued rebel attacks on government troops.
In June 2018, both panels were set to sign an interim peace deal. It was to be preceded by a stand-down agreement to be replaced by a coordinated unilateral ceasefire, which was a step closer to a more binding bilateral ceasefire.
But the government pulled back following concerns raised by security officials over the planned stand-down deal and the interim peace agreement.
Lara said both sides should also prepare for a talk-and-fight scenario, meaning resuming negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) even without a ceasefire.
“Which is still a lot better than no talking,” he said.
After negotiations went sour in 2017, the president issued Proclamation No. 374 declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, as terrorist organizations.
Duterte’s Executive Order No. 70 the following year outlined a wide-ranging strategy to crush the 50-year-old rebellion, including going after supposed communist legal fronts.
CPP founding chairman Jose Maria Sison described EO 70 as “the most comprehensive and the biggest obstacle” to resuming formal talks.
“Duterte did the big harsh moves. He should back out from them as suavely as he can,” Sison told ABS-CBN News.
Several NDFP consultants have also been arrested, which further dimmed the prospects of getting peace talks back on track.
In the meantime, Lara said the rebels could also claim a measure of victory and argue that all these government efforts “cannot simply snuff us out despite everything that was thrown at them.”
“Obviously, both sides are thinking that they are now in a better position of strength,” he said.