The Peace Process: Communists Come to the Table

by John Paul Omac

Coverage of the talks was limited to reporting of events as if they are separate from each other. News reports provided limited context and background on the issue despite its complexity being the longest running communist insurgency in Asia. Reports leave out more important aspects of the process such as the background of the conflict the parties are trying to resolve and the implications of the propositions being debated and/or agreed upon.

DURING HIS campaign, then candidate Rodrigo Duterte said that one of the first things he would do if he wins is to declare a ceasefire with the Communists and pursue anew the peace negotiations, release political prisoners and bring back Jose Maria Sison, founder and leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

In an unprecedented political move, Duterte as president-elect invited the Left to nominate names to be included in his Cabinet. He appointed University of the Philippines professor Judy Taguiwalo to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), former Anakpawis Representative Rafael Mariano to Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and former Gabriela Representative Liza Maza to the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC).

Swiftly, the peace process got another start on June 14-15, 2016. Negotiating panels for the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) held exploratory talks in Oslo, Norway with the Royal Government of Norway as international facilitator.

To further sweeten his peace initiative, Duterte’s  state of the nation address (SONA) in July included the stunning announcement of the government’s unilateral ceasefire with the communists.  Unfortunately, just two days later, a unit of the CPP’s New People’s Army (NPA), ambushed members of the Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) in Mindanao.  The attack forced the president to terminate his ceasefire order.

A brief word war between Duterte and Sison followed as the latter blamed the military for having entered into guerilla area in violation of the declaration.  An exchange of hostile messages had Duterte and Sison calling each other names.

 

Word war between Duterte and Sison. I Video from GMANews Youtube account.

 

Despite the short-lived ceasefire, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza said that the government was still willing to push through the peace talks. Sison said that the CPP was ready to move forward with negotiations.

The amenable atmosphere was boosted with the government’s reported release of 19 of the 22 political prisoners from the NDF who were going to serve as peace consultants for the formal talks. Duterte also restored his indefinite unilateral ceasefire with the Left. The CPP on the other hand declared a seven-day unilateral ceasefire.

Formal negotiations resumed as scheduled on August 20-27. Both sides agreed to reaffirm bilateral agreements made in previous negotiations. These include The Hague Joint Declaration signed in 1992, with the Left, the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) signed in 1995 and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed in 1998. The first round of talks concluded with the Left agreeing to extend their seven-day ceasefire indefinitely.

 

Bilateral Peace Agreements

Hague Joint Declaration

The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 provides the framework of the government’s peace process with the CPP-NPA-NDF. It identifies the substantive agenda of the formal peace negotiations namely human rights and international humanitarian law, socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, the end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG)

The JASIG is an identification system that gives protection and security to consultants of both parties. JASIG-protected individuals are given the freedom to discuss and promote the peace negotiations across the country. All duly accredited persons are guaranteed immunity from surveillance, harassment, search, arrest, detention, prosecution and interrogation or any other similar punitive actions due to any involvement or participation in the peace negotiations.JASIG ensures the continuity of the peace talks by assuring both parties that their negotiators and consultants can move and speak freely in relation to their role in the peace process.

Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)

CARHRIHL is the first of the four substantive agenda outlined in the Hague Joint Declaration signed by both panels in the negotiations. It aims to promote the respect of and adherence to international humanitarian law among the forces of the CPP and the government. CARHRIHL stipulates the creation of a Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) which consists of six members—three nominated by the government and three by the NDF—which will jointly probe all cases of human rights abuses in the course of the armed conflict.

 

During the second round of talks on October 6-8, 2016, peace negotiators agreed on common outlines for social and economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and the end of hostilities and disposition of assets. Other issues discussed were the drafting of a bilateral ceasefire agreement and the amnesty for the remaining political prisoners.­

Post-script:

As winter set in and lowered temperatures in Oslo proved too much for Filipinos, the peace talks relocated to Rome. Talks began on schedule on January 19-25, this year.  Among the issues discussed was the bilateral ceasefire­. NDF chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili stated that a bilateral ceasefire could follow the agreement on issues including the release of 392 political prisoners and the presence of the AFP in local communities. The third round of talks concluded without a joint ceasefire.

On February 1, citing the non-compliance on the release of political prisoners and the alleged violations of the military in their own ceasefire, the CPP stated that they will be terminating their five-month old unilateral ceasefire by February 10, 2017. The Left maintained however that they will continue the peace talks with the government. Both parties agreed to meet for a fourth round of formal talks in Oslo on April 2-6. Representatives of both sides dealing specifically with the ceasefire issue will meet sooner in the Netherlands on February 22-27.

 

From left to right: Fidel Agcaoili, NDFP Panel Chairperson; Jose Maria Sison, NDFP Chief Political Consultant; Erik Førner, Norwegian Ambassador to the Philippines; Elisabeth Slåttum, Special Envoy and Third Party Facilitator to the GRP- NDFP Talks; Perfecto Yasay, Secretary of Foreign Affairs; Jesus Dureza, Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process; Silvestre Bello III, GRP Panel Chairperson. | Photo from The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

 

What Went Before?

A little bit of history always helps.

Talks with the Left have been on and off for the past thirty years. Since 1986 over 40 rounds of talks with the Left have been conducted and disrupted over 15 times.

In 2011, after being stalled for seven years, negotiations resumed under the administration of Benigno Aquino III. Talks however could not even begin as the GRP refused to release prisoners claimed by the NDF as peace consultants covered by JASIG.

The government said that it could not release any more prisoners since the diskettes containing the photos and identification of the NDF’s consultants covered by the JASIG had been corrupted. With the failure of verification mechanism, the GRP said it was not possible to validate whether those claimed by the NDF as consultants were actually covered in the agreement. The GRP also refused the offer of the NDF to reconstitute the JASIG list. Peace talks once again returned to an impasse.

Reporting the Talks

It is difficult, if not impossible to negotiate in public. To succeed, negotiations require a measure of confidentiality. Media needs to be very familiar with the issues which will be taken up in progression as talks prosper. This familiarity will allow them to ask the kinds of questions that draw more substance out of the well-chosen words of joint statements issued after a round of talks or statements made to the media by one or the other side.

The peace process has been going on for more than four decades. Each start brings up past issues. Unfortunately, those reporting at different stages change. Almost always, the reporter for the current talks needs to get a solid crash course on the issues on either side of the table, reviewing some of the history before hoping to make sense of what is going on behind closed doors. So far, there is little evidence that reporters are well prepared to keep the public abreast of the progress or lack of it in the current negotiations between the GRP and the CPP-NDF.

Political Prisoners

The issue of political prisoners continues to be a thorn on the side of negotiators. Reports tend to rely primarily on press briefings and statements, repeating merely what have been said. Simply quoting sources without bridging gaps and checking the claims allows both parties to use media as an extension of their propaganda.

Early November, Labor Secretary and chief negotiator for the GRP-NDF peace talks Silvestre Bello III was quoted as saying that both sides were to sign a bilateral ceasefire by December. Bello also said that only the “technicalities” such as the common definitions of hostile acts and buffer zones remain as hurdles.

Days after, NDFP issued a statement that there is no imminent signing of a bilateral ceasefire and accused the GRP of “drum[ming] up false news about an impending bilateral ceasefire in order to gloss over the serious obstacles put up by the GRP to the forging of a more stable ceasefire.” In the statement, NDFP peace panel member Benito Tiamzon said that there are more serious issues to be discussed, such as the alleged violations of the military of their own unilateral ceasefire and the release of nearly 400 political prisoners, before a bilateral ceasefire can be achieved.

Reports failed to clarify either the technicalities Bello cited or the ceasefire violations Tiamzon accused government of committing.  The media also failed to explore the issue of political prisoners which the Left has consistently demanded as a requisite for an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire.

MILF and More

Prior to the tragedy in Mamasapano, Filipinos had looked forward to the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) as a way to bring an end to the waging of war and a measure of a just and lasting peace in Mindanao.

The unfortunate clash derailed the passage of the law and sidelined further discussion of peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for the rest of Aquino administration. In January 2016, then Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Pangalian Balindong declared in a privilege speech that with a “grieving heart,” he was going to “close the book of hope for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.”

But the MILF had not entirely given up hope — with a president from Mindanao who expressed not just an affinity but solidarity with the Bangsamoro. In a January 2016 interview with MindaNews, MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim stressed that there would be no renegotiation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the next administration as it had already been signed. What they would do is push for its implementation, which includes the passage of the BBL.

As presidential candidate, Duterte vowed to push for the passage of the BBL. He said that he intended to make the Bangsamoro an example for the federal form of government that he has been advocating.

Duterte also drew into the limelight Nur Misuari, who was on trial for his alleged role in the siege of Zamboanga in 2013, resulting in a most destructive clash with the military that left more than 200 people dead, including civilians, policemen, soliders and MNLF members.

As the country’s foremost Moro rebel, Misuari launched the separatist movement in the late ‘60s. He has waged war against the government and has been hounded for it. His foray into mainstream politics in the ‘90s and his subsequent removal from the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fueled intense and extensive media coverage.

The clueless coverage of Misuari’s appearance in Malacañang on November 3 was disappointing, to say the least. With few exceptions, the media reported Misuari’s resurfacing without touching on the reason for his three years in hiding, as a fugitive from the law facing charges for rebellion and “crimes against humanity.”

Misuari was a free man, at least for the occasion. Pasig City Regional Trial Court Branch 158 suspended the proceedings and enforcement of the warrants for his arrest for the next six months. The media also conveniently left this development without question.

President Duterte then arranged his transport to Manila, escorted by Secretary Jesus Dureza. The president invited the MNLF leader to speak from the presidential podium, from where Misuari proceeded to recall his role in the struggle for Moro liberation and express his support for the peace process of the Duterte administration.

Most of the news reports, print or TV, were bereft of the context and detail that the event required.

Who Is Misuari?

Not surprisingly, Nur Misuari’s connection to the 2013 Zamboanga siege was the most commonly used backgrounder in the media’s coverage. Hardly any outlet delved into the rich, violent and complicated history of Misuari, particularly, his transformation from a professor in the University of the Philippines to the firebrand founder of the Moro liberation movement and the war waged for the cause, the impact of which continues to be felt today.

 

Nur Misuari | CMFR File Photo

 

Among the exceptions, Aksyon Tonite’s “EDiTORYAL” segment on November 3 aired a special feature on Misuari to supplement their reports on the rebel leader’s meeting with Duterte. The report recalled Misuari’s history as the face of the Moro rebellion and leader of the MNLF in the seventies. Also tackled were the peace pacts Misuari signed in behalf of the MNLF with two previous administrations: the 1976 Tripoli Agreement under the government of then President Ferdinand Marcos and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with then President Fidel V. Ramos which sought to fully implement the points agreed upon in the previous treaty.

He made more history with the signing of two peace pacts with two previous administrations.  It also recounted the breakaway of a faction which then formed the MILF.

The special traced more recent history, Misuari’s ousting by his own fellow rebels from the MNLF leadership due to the dissatisfaction among its ranks, noting the breakup of the group into factions since then, with no clear indications whether Misuari is still considered its leader.

Misuari, the MILF and Malaysia” published by Philstar.com on November 4 also made a similar effort, also explaining Misuari’s animosity toward Malaysia.

Misuari, MILF and the Peace Process

The media’s coverage was right to report Misuari’s return in the context of the resumption of the peace process. The Duterte administration has set out to get the leadership of both MILF and MNLF on board.

On November 7, Duterte signed the executive order (EO) for the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Committee (BTC). The new BTC, presented by government panel chairperson Irene Santiago, will now be composed of 21 members. Eleven will come from the MILF, while the remaining 10 will be nominated by the government — three of which will come from the MNLF. The Misuari-MNLF faction will have a separate 5-member implementing peace panel.

However, the euphoria over having united the leaders of both groups was short-lived. In an exclusive report by CNN Philippines’ Network News on the same day the EO was signed, Misuari revealed his refusal to work with the MILF leaders whom he regarded as “traitors” and “criminals.”

This disdain goes back of course to the fact that the MILF had parted ways from the MNLF. In 2012, Misuari criticized the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) signed by the Aquino government and the MILF the same year as “a product of tripartite conspiracy.” He also claimed the FAB was a clear violation of the 1996 FPA signed by the government with the MNLF and lamented that the latter was remiss in its duty in implementing the treaty.

The Zamboanga attack in 2013 was seen as an expression of his opposition to the peace accord between the government and the MILF.

These twists and turns in the fabled career of Nur Misuari cannot be dismissed as historical trivia. The media owes the public a record of the past as the man and the MNLF exert greater influence and a place at the table in the current peace talks of the Duterte administration.

 

CHEERS | JEERS

Confused and Confusing

Posted on: August 10, 2016

IN HIS first State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Rodrigo Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New Peoples’ Army, and the National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

Several newspapers ran reports on Duterte’s announcement. However, most of them confused the unilateral ceasefire with a truce. A unilateral ceasefire is declared only by one side in a conflict in preparation for negotiations, while a truce is mutually agreed upon to stop hostilities usually for humanitarian purposes.

Two newspapers ran reports with headlines equating the ceasefire declaration with a truce. The Philippine Star published “Peace of the living: Truce with Reds declared,” while the Manila Standard also ran “Duterte declares truce with Reds.”

Two days after the SONA, on July 27, the NPA ambushed a Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU), leaving one dead and four others injured. The CPP statement pointed to the military violating the government’s own ceasefire declaration. On July 30, Duterte lifted the ceasefire declaration.

Media reports again reverted to the use of the two terms as meaning the same thing. Surprisingly, some of those who got the terms right in earlier reports made the mistake in subsequent reports, and vice versa.

Hopefully, as the peace process moves forward, the press will be able to use these terms correctly, as confusing their meaning could affect the public’s appreciation of the progress of these efforts.


The Difference Between a Truce and a Ceasefire

The words truce and ceasefire are usually used interchangeably in media reports and other literature. While these terms have overlapping meanings, they are not synonymous.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines a truce as an agreement between conflicting parties to stop hostilities in a certain area during a certain period. It is usually an informal suspension of hostilities carried out to negotiate specific issues such as evacuating casualties or exchange of prisoners. Truces tend to be temporary, but can at times lead to a more permanent cessation of hostilities (“Glossary: Truce,” Casebook.ICRC.org, May 22, 2012).

A ceasefire refers to the immediate effect produced by suspending hostilities (“Glossary: Cease-fire,” Casebook.ICRC.org, May 21, 2012). It is declared either unilaterally (undertaken by only a single side in a conflict), or bilaterally (agreed upon by both sides) usually to prepare for negotiations. It does not however end conflict; it only halts it temporarily (Truce, Cease-Fire and Armistice: The Legal Nuances,” NYTimes.com, February 22, 2016).

*All post updated for MediaTimes

The Peace Process: Clarifying Issues, Explaining Concepts

Posted on: September 5, 2016

CHEERS TO the People’s Alternative Media Network (Altermidya) and Manila Today for publishing articles that help explain the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

Screengrab from ManilaToday website.

Altermidya published on Aug. 25 an alphabetical list of issues related to the peace process(“Want peace but can’t understand the talk? Here is the essential A-Z”). The list attempts to make the public understand the peace talks and included such items as the 1992 Hague Joint Declaration, which sets the framework of the GRP-NDFP negotiations, and the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG), which guarantees the immunity of peace consultants and negotiators from harassment and detention. It also explained the meaning of a truce and a ceasefire and tackled as well the release of political prisoners.

Manila Today ran an article on Aug. 16 discussing the background of the ongoing civil war between the government and the armed Left (“On today’s talks of peace talks, ceasefires and landmines”). It also discussed the sensitive issue of landmines after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to halt peace negotiations if the NPA, the armed wing of the CPP, continues to use landmines. Duterte claimed that landmines are banned under the Geneva Convention. Manila Today clarified that under the Geneva Convention and the Ottawa Convention, only anti-personnel and victim-detonated mines are prohibited to avoid civilian casualties in conflict areas.  Command-detonated mines used by the NPA are permitted under the said international conventions.

Such initiatives from the alternative media to bring peace issues closer to the public by explaining significant issues and concepts help in promoting a better understanding of the peace process, instead of merely highlighting conflict.

As the formal talks proceed, the mainstream media should follow suit.