Features | Politics | Security | Southeast Asia

Will There Be a Christmas Ceasefire in the Philippines?

The Reds are open to a ceasefire and peace talks, but is Duterte?

By Michael Beltran for
Will There Be a Christmas Ceasefire in the Philippines?

Masked members of the outlawed National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the umbrella organization of the Philippine communist movement, hold a demonstration in Manila, Philippines on Monday, March 25, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

For longer than the name “Philippines” has existed in reference to a nation, the archipelago has been beset by conflict between those in power and those without. The conflicts span from sporadic revolts against colonialists to full-fledged national liberation movements and the now almost 51-year armed revolution being waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). 

The world’s longest-running communist civil war remains entrenched in the social conditions that gave birth to it: Persistent inequalities and a government unresponsive to the needs of the people, as the rebels often allude to. Government forces have been attempting to crush the revolutionary army since its inception; however, since the early 1990s up until the present each successive Philippine administration has in some form or another entertained peace negotiations with the revolutionary group. 

For a large part of the past several decades there has been a customary ceasefire between the two parties during the Christmas holidays. It has been a pact on humanitarian grounds with or without the presence of any ongoing negotiations. 

The latest iteration of peace talks had been terminated by President Rodrigo Duterte in November 2017, though back-channel discussions and the possibility of a resumption have always been on the lips on both sides.

But in 2018, the Duterte government made the bold move to withhold any ceasefire declaration, deeming it a pointless exercise that affords leniency toward enemies of the state. This came after the rebels had already implemented a unilateral ceasefire for the latter part of that December. Left out in the cold by a disinterested administration, the guerrillas were on an active defense.

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What changed that month was Duterte’s issuance of Executive Order (EO) 70 ordering the creation of a National Task Force to End the Local Communist Insurgency. That signaled intensified efforts to annihilate what stands as the biggest threat to the Duterte government domestically. In March 2019, Duterte followed up with an announcement of a “permanent termination” of talks with the reds, which seemed to close the door to further negotiations.

Since the collapse of the talks, seven key consultants on the side of the rebels have been arrested and one assassinated despite bearing mutually agreed upon immunity as consultants for the peace process. All of them were part of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the CPP’s broader political organ. This past year has been rough, with attacks, tirades, and the conflict seesawing; thus it was a surprise to hear the president again speak of possibly sitting back down at the table to discuss peace. Duterte went so far as to send an envoy to hold informal and exploratory talks with NDFP representatives on December 7 and 8.   

During Duterte’s presidency there has existed a curious dichotomy of reaching tangible landmarks in the progression of the negotiations but also arguably putting on display the harshest vilification and treatment of rebels and critics since the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s and ’80s. During the formal talks, an agreement was made on a framework and outline for proposed agreements on socioeconomic reforms. Addressing poverty, landlessness, and unemployment among other things is the meat of the contention for the communists, who believe that achieving peace goes beyond simply laying down weapons to include resolving the root causes of conflict. 

In this same period, Duterte implemented Martial Law in the southern group of the country’s islands deemed a rebel stronghold. In addition to the targeting of individual leaders of the NDFP, he also strengthened military operations in several other regions where they felt the NPA had significant support from the peasantry. These regions have now reported a flurry of human rights violations perpetrated against those suspected of being sympathetic to the guerrillas. 

With the rumblings for a renewed eagerness to engage in the achievement of lasting peace, will the holidays be quiet, free of armed conflict?

Good Tidings Needed for a Happy Holiday

The CPP and the NDFP have always welcomed any chance of discussing peace and have remained critical of Duterte’s moves to shut down negotiations in favor of further bloodshed. Before they can get to peace talks, agreeing to a holiday ceasefire would significantly boost the chances of facing each other again formally.

CPP founder and now the NDFP’s Chief Political Consultant Jose Ma. Sison told The Diplomat that “the Duterte regime cannot gain the trust and confidence of the NDFP if it refuses to carry out goodwill measures, such as the release of sickly and elderly political prisoners on humanitarian grounds, and engage in reciprocal unilateral ceasefires during the Christmas season up to the first week of New Year.” 

Unless the government is willing to budge, it is unlikely the reds will implement a ceasefire, especially after being left hanging by the state last year. The revolutionaries hold somewhat of an upper hand since the administration has been exposed, via its actions, as having an aversion to peace, while the revolutionaries’ struggle demonstrates a consistent commitment.

Another complication is that Duterte wants to hold talks in the Philippines. The NDFP asserts that a
foreign neutral territory is the best option, as is usually the case.

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Sison adds, “The NDFP is under no obligation to negotiate with a regime that is already discredited and is running out of time. The revolutionary movement is advancing. But the NDFP is demonstrating to the people in the Philippines and the world that it takes every chance to negotiate even with its enemy and avail of any step possible to move forward towards the goal of just peace.”

More importantly, Duterte’s record in participation in the talks (formal or informal) has not been stellar, launching greater offensives against their enemy and implementing strengthened counterinsurgency measures. There is an understandable distrust from the reds. 

“The NDFP cannot trust the Duterte regime and cannot rely on mere avowals of sincerity. It is important to recognize the dangers and pitfalls and to take precautions. The Duterte regime has to prove that it is not merely trying to put the NDFP in a trap for his armed minions,” insists Sison. 

After meeting with the envoy, government representatives promised to take back the proposed “goodwill measures in the spirit of Christmas and new year” to the president. Not overly eager yet hopeful of a positive response, Sison described his expectations as “reasonable.” There is no telling how fast the administration will respond to the demands laid out for the release of political prisoners and a neutral venue for official meetings. 

The Grinch

Despite the president having expressed an openness to a truce, more militaristic minds feel otherwise and are likely advising the leader, who has been clear with his own disdain for the revolutionaries. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said after the informal talks that a ceasefire only allows the enemy to regroup and expand their numbers undisturbed. 

This sentiment was echoed by Navy Captain Jonathan V. Zata, the Chief of Public Affairs Office, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) who disclosed to The Diplomat that the “AFP will not recommend a holiday ceasefire. The AFP will continue with its successful intensified combat, intelligence, and civil-military operations. We will continue to anchor our thrusts in supporting the implementation of Executive Order 70 and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.”

Zata acknowledged that widespread poverty was one of the main drivers of the insurgency, and while they cannot address this alone, the entire state machinery is “succeeding” in the battle against the “communist terrorist” groups. 

It is curious why the executive branch proclaimed a willingness for dialogue if the troops felt they were so much closer to crushing the insurgents. In all fairness, talk of the imminent destruction of the guerrilla army has been a frequent feature of the AFP’s pronouncements and yet the NPA still boasts a significant presence in 71 out of 81 provinces in the country. 

The regime could be trying to rescue its political legacy as having progressed the furthest in negotiations. Last week Duterte admitted this latest attempt at entertaining talks to be his “last card” as his time is “running out.”

But the military’s persistence in utilizing more forceful means to end the revolution may still prevail. Duterte has been known to actively heed and even reinforce the wishes of his armed forces. 

Whatever the case, the rebels could go with or without any resumption of talks. Their revolutionary war has been waged for more than half a century and has shown no signs of subsiding. 

The opportunity for a Christmas ceasefire could set a good precedent for both sides. The NDFP has already laid down their cards and they welcome a conditional ceasefire. The ball is with Duterte now to reciprocate, and even if he does, a softer approach to the insurgents seems unlikely given his record of solving problems by pointing guns at them. 

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.