President Rodrigo Duterte has made no secret of his love affair with the Philippine Left. Even during his time as mayor of Davao he expressed high regard for the radical leftist New People’s Army (NPA), crediting their passionate stance to alleviate the plight of the poor.
During the 2016 presidential elections, Duterte was rumored to have the support of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – the political arm of the NPA. Despite the organization’s denial of any formal endorsement of any candidate their founder Jose Maria Sison did go on record to speak highly of the straight-shooter from Davao, saying in an interview that he has “many nice things to say about [Duterte].”
The incumbent President also has the backing of Makabayan, the leftist bloc of lawmakers in Congress. For this, Duterte proudly remarked during the campaign that if he were to win in that year’s election he would become the “first leftist president” of the Philippines. Their mutual admiration and trust is also why the former Davao City mayor was made a frequent hostage negotiator by the government for prisoners-of-war held captive by the NPA.
Duterte’s stature among Filipino Leftists is distinct from that of previous Philippine presidents, they have respect for him. Winning the trust of the Philippine Left was very difficult for past administrations, hence the futility of any attempt at negotiating with them. The mutual respect between Duterte and the leftists gave hope that his Presidency will lead to the eventual truce between the Philippine Government and the CPP-NPA.
He himself made that a promise many years ago, declaring that if he would become Chief Executive the war with the Communists will end and he will build a “coalition government with the CPP.”
The communist insurgency in the Philippines stretches back to almost five decades, with thousands dead and plenty of lost economic growth due to continuous fighting in the hinterlands a permanent truce is highly sought after. An end to the fighting will pay dividends not only economically but also to bring peace to the lives of many rural poor.
Which is why it came with great sadness when in a press conference, President Rodrigo Duterte called for the end of the ceasefire with the NPA and announced the scrapping of peace talks with the CPP.
The Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the CPP-NPA-NDF were engaged in formal peace negotiations in Norway and Italy which was brokered by the former. A week before Duterte’s announcement, the third round of discussions had just concluded with panelists suggesting “major breakthroughs”.
That announcement gave high hopes that a formal truce was in the horizon, only to be severely rattled when the NPA withdrew their unilateral ceasefire with the government. The reason given that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) engaged their fighters in warfare despite having a ceasefire in place. In response, President Duterte announced the GRP’s withdrawal of their own ceasefire and a day after that, ended the peace negotiations entirely.
The hardest pill to swallow was Duterte’s declaration that “peace with the communists will not come in this generation”, ordering his government’s peace negotiators to “fold up their tents and come home”. A definitive sign that any peace with the rebels was either impossible or at least highly unlikely during his term in office.
The aggression in Duterte’s new stance on the Communists is a stark contrast to his previous affinity with them. It is difficult to understand what would cause such a rapid, 180-degree turn; only six months ago the President freed several high-ranking officials of the CPP-NDF who were political prisoners of the Philippine government. The move was seen both as a gesture of goodwill to the Communists but also as proof of his administration’s sincerity in discussing peace with the rebels.
Contrast that with the President’s latest command to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to re-arrest all CPP-NPA-NDF officials freed last year, while at the same time branding the entire group as “terrorists”. It should be clear that President Duterte does not see the rebels in the same light anymore, and the chances of a permanent truce have also drastically changed.
It is should be noted that the President – as well as any other president – surrounds himself with a team of advisers, comprising the Office of the President Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). These advisers counsel the Commander-in-Chief of matters dealing with belligerent forces against the state, and it is their counsel which ultimately decides the fate of any peace process.
The answer to deciphering Duterte’s surprisingly sudden turn in his sentiments for the Leftists could lie with his “peace” advisers. From the offset, there have been factions within the Philippine military and the government that are opposed to giving in to the demands of the communist rebels. Their input might have influenced the more combative tone the President now has.
This is a defeat, not only for the peace negotiators working hard to settle a peace treaty between the GRP and the Communist Insurgency but also for the Philippines – the future loss of life and lost economic gains that the continued fighting will bring will only rob the state of prosperity.
President Duterte might think that he is emitting a hardline stance with his new approach towards the rebels, in reality what he is doing is turning his back on peace and a shot at moving the country forward.