Duterte’s peace try falls to pieces

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New People's Army (NPA) fighters in formation in the Sierra Madre mountain range, located east of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Cialis

As one armed conflict winds down, another has reignited in the Philippines.

On November 23, President Rodrigo Duterte officially cancelled peace negotiations with the Communist Party (CPP) of the Philippines and its affiliated New People’s Army (NPA) after failed talks and a series of violent attacks.

The revived peace initiative, aimed to end Asia’s longest running communist insurgency, had been touted as one of Duterte’s policy successes but now seems destined to the same failed fate as previous governments’ attempts to end the conflict.

The NPA maintains guerilla fronts across the archipelagic nation’s three main islands, with activities mostly in provinces home to big mining and agribusiness operations.

In a proclamation, the government said the communist rebels “failed to show its sincerity and commitment in pursuing genuine and meaningful peace negotiations as it engaged in acts of violence and hostilities, endangering the lives and properties of innocent people.”

The NPA has recently intensified its attacks on public and private targets in several separate regions.

It has also leveraged the military’s focus on the siege of Marawi City – where fighting forces were until recently bogged down in a five-month urban battle against Islamic State-allied militants – to extend its positions.

Philippine marines from the Special Warfare Group stand to attention during their arrival from Marawi at port area in metro Manila, Philippines October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

Philippine marines from the Special Warfare Group arrive from Marawi at a port area in metro Manila, October 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Duterte placed the entire southern island of Mindanao under martial law until the end of the year in response to the siege, an order that outraged communist rebels who felt it undermined the terms of their preliminary agreement by imposing stronger and largely unchecked military rule.

The attacks have hit close to Duterte. In July, communist guerillas ambushed a Presidential Security Group convoy in Cotabato province in Central Mindanao that wounded four of his elite presidential bodyguards.

NPA rebels have claimed that in Northern Mindanao they have successfully launched 27 attacks against government forces and captured two policemen in the first half of November.

The intensified attacks included an incident on November 9 where a four-month-old child was killed and two other civilians injured in an NPA ambush in Talakag town in Bukidnon province. The rebels apologized to the family of the civilian victims who were driving their private vehicle behind a police car that was the intended target of the guerillas.

The infant’s death gave Duterte the symbolic ammunition to terminate the peace negotiations. “That was the last straw,” Duterte said in a November 21 speech in Taguig City before soldiers who saw action in Marawi. “I am no longer available for any official talk. Let’s go to war,” he added.

The Philippine government has already informed and thanked the Norwegian government for facilitating the peace talks, according to Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza.

“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, blaming the communist guerillas for the collapse and their “failure” to reciprocate Duterte’s willingness to travel “an extra-mile to bring peace.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives a speech at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives a speech at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte and the rebels declared separate unilateral ceasefires as goodwill gestures to restart formal peace talks in August 2016, just months after he was sworn into office.

However, the two sides lifted their respective ceasefires earlier this year amid accusations of breach of trust, including the government’s failure to release 400 remaining CPP/NPA political prisoners and the rebels sustained attacks on state targets.

Duterte’s formal termination of the peace talks comes as both sides had made strides on socio-economic reforms, including agreements to alleviate the widespread poverty at the roots of the conflict.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the CPP’s political arm, revealed the peace panels had signed draft documents on agrarian reform, rural development, national industrialization and economic development that if implemented could benefit millions of Filipinos.

Instead, Duterte is now threatening to re-designate the NPA as a terrorist group, a label that Manila lifted in pursuit of peace under the previous Benigno Aquino III government in 2011.

Whether that designation would further internationalize the conflict is unclear. There have been past reports that China has supplied arms, namely Type 56 assault rifles, and North Korea support to the NPA.

The United States already classified the CPP/NPA as a terror organization in 2002 “because of its aim to overthrow the Philippine government through a protracted guerrilla warfare.” The European Union’s has also designated it a terror organization.

Old People's War for New People's Army: the truce is off and armed conflict may begin again in earnest. Photo: AFP

New People’s Army fighters brandish their arms. Photo: AFP

It’s uncertain if ramped up US and Australian counterterrorism assistance could also be directed at the NPA.

Formed in 1969 by leftist academic Jose Maria Sison, the communist insurgency has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives on both sides including civilians.

Its strength peaked during the time of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos with more than 20,000 fighters. In 2015, the Philippine army estimated its strength at 3,200 fighters and has frequently claimed its “people’s war” is a front for extortion collected as revolutionary taxes.

Duterte acknowledged during the Marawi siege that the communist rebels were strengthening their ranks and that they would be his government’s next target after the foreign-backed jihadists were subdued.

The NPA’s scattered presence across the country poses a logistical challenge compared with other local rebel groups which tend to be concentrated in a few Muslim dominated provinces in Mindanao.

NPA rebels are known to maintain nomadic camps in mountainous areas on the three main islands of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao and claim grass roots support from remote communities that allow them to launch frequent surprise attacks against state and private targets.

The NPA’s scattered presence across the country poses a logistical challenge compared with other local rebel groups which tend to be concentrated in a few Muslim dominated provinces in Mindanao

Communist party founder Sison, who once taught Duterte as a student, has personally lambasted the leader for terminating the peace talks and threatening to reclassify the NPA as a terrorist organization. He recently referred to the president as a “mass murderer, a sycophant to foreign powers and a corrupt bureaucrat.”

“The Filipino people and revolutionary forces waging the people´s democratic revolution have no choice but to intensify the people´s war through an extensive and intensive guerrilla warfare in rural areas and partisan or commando operations in urban areas,” Sison said in a statement from the Netherlands, where he has resided in exile for over three decades.

Sison and Duterte were initially cordial when the latter assumed the presidency in mid-2016, but their rapport deteriorated this year through mutual public personal insults that predictably did not augur well for a peace deal successive governments have failed to achieve.

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