OPINION: Who is next? Context for the collapse of the peace talks

ARNOLD ALAMON, SUNSTAR.COM.PH — IT WAS only a matter of time for the armed encounters in Makilala, North Cotabato and Malaybalay, Bukidnon to occur which eventually provided the context for the collapse of the peace talks this week.


First, it was the combat operation of the military in Makilala which lead to the death of one New People’s Army (NPA) rebel on January 21 and the reported but unconfirmed deaths of eight soldiers at a time when the unilateral ceasefire from both sides were supposedly in place. It was an armed attack against lawless elements, admitted the military in an obvious admission of breach of their own ceasefire declaration.


Prior to this, the NPA has been complaining for months how their forces have been skirting military operations such as the one in Makilala to avoid armed encounters with soldiers and keep their own ceasefire declaration in place. They have noted that soldiers were actually making use of the ceasefire to forward deploy their troops into rebel territory in about five hundred barrios across the country.


These intervening events that show the Philippine military in constant threatening war-footing plus the delay in the release of about 392 political prisoners caused Ka Oris of the NPA to announce their decision to lift their unilateral ceasefire effective February 10 even as the National Democratic Front (NDF) and Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) negotiating panels successfully closed the third round of the talks in Rome from January 19-25, 2017.


In the interim starting February 1, Ka Oris announced that all NPA units were now in active defense mode.


The announcement coincided with an armed encounter in Manay, Davao Oriental where a junior officer was killed. The next day, February 2, three soldiers were waylaid in an NPA checkpoint in Malaybay, Bukidnon.


The consecutive encounters and the rising body count especially among the ranks of the Philippine Army were like pockets of small fire that could not be anymore contained and indicated the commencement of armed violence between the NPA and government troops after months of being restrained. Like a dam that was about the break, these incidents added up to the end and collapse of the peace talks as angrily announced by no less than the president himself.


In the wake of the three soldiers here in Cagayan de Oro City February 6, Duterte declared the end of the government’s negotiations with the communist rebels. He ordered the arrest of the NDF consultants freed on bail and even went to the extent of declaring the communists are terrorists and are exempted from the rights enshrined under the Geneva convention.


Last February 3, lumad leader Renato Anglao was shot dead in Quezon, Bukidnon in front of his wife and child by bonnet-wearing motorcycle riding men, a day after the Malaybalay incident. Just this Monday, February 6, Emelito Rotimas was also killed in the same manner in Maco, Compostela Valley. Both are known as mass leaders and open activists fighting for causes such as Lumad rights to their ancestral land and pro-people convictions that align them with the Left in their areas.


What has brought us to this state? The present negotiations between the NDF and the GRP under the Duterte administration showed much promise early on with NDF consultants observing that the talks have moved significantly forward in the past few months compared to the decade of peace talks under the Arroyo and Aquino administrations.


A consistent thorny issue has always been the release of political prisoners. Duterte, during his campaign and in the early months of his administration, has declared his government’s commitment to the release of political prisoners.


For the NDF side, the release of political prisoners is more than just a bargaining chip but an issue of justice. As part of the legal offensive of government against what is considered as enemies of the state, previous administrations have filed trumped up charges against armed and unarmed dissidents to put them indefinitely in jail.


The release of hundreds of these political prisoners is the duty of the government to redress what is a legal and moral wrong perpetrated by government from the point of view of the NDF – a point that the Duterte administration seemed to have understood and supported with their promise to release political prisoners through a general amnesty proclamation with the concurrence of congress.


What has happened since then? And what accounts for the 180-degree turn around of the first self-confessed leftist president? The truth actually came straight from the horse’s mouth on February 3.


In a public speech, the President himself candidly said he couldn’t risk getting the ire of the military by releasing all political prisoners lest he lose their respect and be ousted. It was a rare display of fealty and submission from the irrepressible character.


The collapse of the peace talks has ushered in a wave of killings of open activist leaders. As if on cue, instead of targeting armed combatants in the mountains, masked riders have already felled civilians Tatay Rene Anglao in Bukidnon and Tatay Intik Rotimas in Compostela Valley. The dirty war is back and the grim and chilling question now is: who is next on their list?