By the Mindanao Bureau

EVEN BEFORE President Rodrigo R. Duterte was officially sworn into office on June 30, 2016, his appointed peace negotiators flew to Oslo, Norway to meet with the leaders of the country’s longstanding communist movement.

The informal talks on June 14-15 — attended by Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus G. Dureza and Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III on the government side; and Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison, then National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) negotiating panel head Luis Jalandoni, and then NDFP spokesperson Fidel Agcaoili — was hailed as a major stride with everyone going home bearing a commitment to pursue formal negotiations once Mr. Duterte got settled in Malacañang.

After the first day of the informal meeting, Mr. Dureza, a veteran negotiator having held the same post under the Arroyo administration and earlier led talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, posted on his social media page that there was “shared optimism” on both sides.

The optimism largely hinged on the Duterte factor: Someone whom the exiled Mr. Sison considered an ally, calling him the “first Left president of the Philippines” in a video message to the Peace Forum held in Davao City on June 28, 2016.

Less than a year later, after four rounds of formal talks that also saw the release of at least 20 NDFP consultants and political prisoners, an on-then-off unilateral ceasefire declarations, and the signing of an agreement that was considered a step away from a formal joint ceasefire deal, Mr. Duterte told his panel to pull out of the peace table on the eve of 5th round of negotiations on May 27.

The trigger point was rooted in the declaration of martial law in Mindanao when the Marawi crisis erupted on May 23.

Mr. Agcaoili, who by then has assumed chairmanship of the NDFP panel, said the CPP’s order to the New People’s Army (NPA), its armed wing, to step up attacks was a response to the military’s intensified offensives and “widespread human rights violations preceding and following the declaration of martial law in the whole of Mindanao.”

The CPP order was later taken back, but the government demanded that the CPP put the recall in official writing, which was not granted.

It did not help any that Mr. Sison, from his place of exile in the Netherlands, and his former university student, Mr. Duterte in the palace, engaged in a nasty word war that went as far as tirades on health conditions and mental incapabilities.

“It’s not the end (of the peace process),” Institute for Political and Electoral Reform Executive Director Ramon C. Casiple, speaking in Filipino, said in a Dec. 1 interview. “Kaya lang medyo masama na ang loob ng Presidente kasi nga (But the President is grudging because) he bent backwards, ang dami niyang binigay pati nga (He gave so much, even) Cabinet positions, but then the other side nagkaroon talaga ng (they started to have this) thinking na they can have their take,” Mr. Casiple said.

“In the meantime, ayaw nilang magkaroon ng talks na walang labanan (the NDFP-CPP-NPA side did not want to have talks without fighting)… talking while fighting, fighting while talking, which actually is the mode na pinipilit nila (that they have been insisting on) ever since, which led, as I’ve said, to nothing,” he added.

On July 19, a convoy of two unmarked vehicles carrying members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) coming from Mr. Duterte’s hometown Davao City on their way to Cagayan de Oro City ended up in a gunfight with NPAs who, posing as military, set up a checkpoint in Arakan, North Cotabato.

Four PSGs were injured and a civilian auxiliary force member, who was not part of the convoy but happened to be in the area, was killed.

This would prove to be a point of no return for the formal peace talks.

Another incident in Mindanao on Nov. 9 — this time in Bukidnon wherein a four-month old baby in a private vehicle became a casualty of an NPA attack on a close-by police car that also left one officer dead — sealed the fiery President’s anger and resolve for war.

“Kung ganun kayo, tapos mag-giyera tayo, pati ’yung mga civilian idadamay natin, ’di ’wag na tayong mag-usap (If that is how you want it, then we go to war, and we compromise civilians, then let’s not talk anymore),” Mr. Duterte said in a media interview on Nov. 21 following an assembly of the League of Cities of the Philippines in Taguig City.

The CPP earlier issued a rare statement of apology for that attack, posting on Nov. 14 on its site that it takes “full responsibility for the death of the infant and the wounding of two other civilians, and will take all measures possible to account for the resulting difficulties.”

But by Nov. 23, Mr. Duterte signed Proclamation No. 360 terminating the peace talks.

“It’s now war,” Mr. Casiple said.

What this means, he explained, is that since there had actually been no solid peace established yet, “what we’ll see is the intensification of offensives on both sides.”

Nonetheless, even with the exchanges of fire on the ground and verbal denunciations from both sides, backchannel talks actually continued in late Oct. to Nov.

Mr. Dureza hinted on this when he announced the cancellation of the negotiations on Nov. 22, a day before the actual signing of PN 360.

“This is an unfortunate development in our work for peace. Never before have we all reached this far in our negotiations with them,” he said.

NDFP’s Julieta de Lima, chairperson of the Reciprocal Working Committees on Social and Economic Reforms (RWCs-SER), confirmed this in a Nov. 23 statement, saying “unprecedented advances have already been achieved in forging agreements on urgently needed socio-economic reforms to alleviate mass poverty and resolve the roots of the armed conflict.”

Ms. De Lima said that four days earlier, the bilateral teams of the NDFP and the government’s RWCs-SER “initialed draft documents reflecting substantial agreements on agrarian reform and rural development, and on national industrialization and economic development. These were the result of a series of bilateral technical meetings” on Oct. 26-27, Nov. 9-11, and Nov. 16-17.

But Mr. Dureza pointed out that “Recent tragic and violent incidents all over the country committed by the communist rebels left the President with no other choice but to arrive at this decision.”

On the other hand, NDFP consultant Randy Felix P. Malayao, in a telephone interview on Nov. 12, asserted that the talks should have “no preconditions.”

“There must be a respect for past agreements and commitments, e.g. the release of political prisoners, the general amnesty for political prisoners. I think that is a vital requirement… and ano ba ang mahalaga sa talks ‘di ba (what is important in the talks)?… reforms that resolve the root causes of the armed conflict,” Mr. Malayao said, citing socioeconomic, political, and constitutional reforms.

“After which, we shall have cessation of hostilities… Sequential kasi ang agenda. Hindi pwedeng magkaroon muna ng (We cannot have a) ceasefire before the economic reform,” he added.

For the administration, however, what could possibly change the President’s stance, according to Mr. Dureza, is if a “desired enabling environment” for peace is laid out, which means not just a halt to the NPA attacks against the military and police, but also “stopping all their extortion activities on the ground, among others.”

The banana industry in Mindanao, which accounts for the country’s second biggest agricultural export commodity and one of the NPA’s main extortion targets, supports an end to the talks.

“They’re bandits under the guise of political agenda,” Alexander N. Valoria, president of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), said in an interview in the first week of Nov.

“How can you negotiate with that? Unless you bring down the government,” Mr. Valoria said. “They (NPA) have to be defeated,” he added.

PBGEA Executive Director Stephen A. Antig, in the same interview, said the military believes that defeating the NPA does not simply mean deploying troops to fight, but to win over the communities as allies.

“The difficulty lies in the fact that we are in six regions and 15 provinces. It’s not that easy to implement (a security program). They’re (military) actually looking at the strategy that will not as much involve the physical aspect of containing this peace and order issue, but one that will include winning the minds of the community, who, according to them, is actually our first buffer,” Mr. Antig said.

The PBGEA officials acknowledged the existence of the so-called revolutionary taxes, “But we don’t talk about how much we pay, or are we paying or not. That depends on the policy of the company concerned,” according to Mr. Antig.

He did cite an estimate of at least P1.3 billion per year that is collected by the NPA from both small and big companies in various industries, as well as individual businessmen.

Mr. Sison, in a statement posted on Nov. 29 in the NDFP Web site, defended the collection.

He said the “taxes collected by the PDG,” referring to what he described as a legitimate “People’s Democratic Government,” are “small compared to that collected by the reactionary government.”

The CPP founder said the funds “are used mainly for the social and economic programs for the benefit of the people and secondarily for the subsistence and administration work of the cadres of the PDG and for the maintenance and expansion of the New People’s Army.”

Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Madrigal, commander of the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command, disputes this saying the NPA uses the term “Rebolusyunaryong Buwis sa Kaaway na Uri (RBKU)”, which literary translates to revolutionary tax on the enemy kind.

“Meaning,” Mr. Madrigal said in mixed English and Filipino in an interview with BusinessWorld mid-Nov., “that if they collect from you, you are not friends, so whatever you do, even if you give, it does not mean you become friends. Tomorrow, your equipment and property could end up burned.”

At the beginning of December, the President signed the proclamation declaring the CPP and NPA as “terrorists’’ while reports of fighting from various parts of the country continued to flood in.

Mr. Bello earlier said the implication of such a declaration would be heat-sealing the closed talks, because the government “cannot negotiate with terrorists.”

The proclamation, in effect, puts the CPP-NPA in the league of the extremist Islamic State followers who took siege of Marawi City, and the Abu Sayyaf group notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom and seajacking activities.

“(I)t will come under the anti-terrorism law, mabigat na parusa doon (the penalties there are heavy). Hindi na (Not just) rebellion,” Mr. Casiple said, referring to Republic Act 9372, or the Human Security Act of 2007, which serves as the country’s main statute dealing with terrorism.

Mr. Dureza, in a Dec. 5 statement, said: “The next step is for the Secretary of Justice to file a petition for ‘proscription’ in court under the provisions of the Human Security Act for a judicial affirmation. Let’s await its outcome.”

For now, the communist guerilla grounds are set as battle zones, dimming what seemed at the auspicious start as a future legacy for Mr. Duterte as the president who built a path of nonviolence that led, finally, to peace with a 50-year old resistance. — Marifi S. Jara with reports from Arjay L. Balinbin, Rosemarie A. Zamora, and Maya M. Padillo