HomeCommentaryPhilippine govt, rebels declare truce amid COVID-19

Philippine govt, rebels declare truce amid COVID-19

At least now we know that the United Nations actually works. How else could they have convinced even the most hardened souls to recognize its moral authority? 

In response to calls from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a global ceasefire between warring parties to fight the new coronavirus, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has announced a ceasefire from March 26 to April 15 to allow the government to focus on battling the pandemic. 

This is a most welcome development after President Rodrigo Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire and subsequently ordered all government forces to cease operations against communist rebels from March 19 to April 15. 

Duterte’s ceasefire declaration came after he placed the main island of Luzon under “enhanced community quarantine” or total lockdown to combat the pandemic. 

The three-week break from the fighting is too short, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte presides over a meeting to discuss ways to contain the spread of the new coronavirus in the country. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)

After Duterte’s truce declaration on March 12, CPP founder and chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front (NDF) Jose Maria Sison said from his base in the Netherlands that guerrillas are also busy fighting the new coronavirus, and thus had no time to stage attacks against government forces.

Sison also described the truce declaration as “premature, if not insincere and false, and just a psywar trick.”

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That initial conclusion may not have been completely off the mark, since the day after Duterte offered a truce, security forces launched a raid on a house in Baguio City that led to the deaths of a top CPP leader, his doctor, and an aide. 

The military claimed the rebel leader chose to fight it out, but the NDF contends that the victims were asleep when the raid happened and that they were the targets of “cold-blooded murder.”

For its part, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process also accused the rebel New People’s Army of the killing of two Manobo tribal chieftains in Surigao del Sur province on March 12. The same night, a band of NPA rebels reportedly harassed a patrol base of Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit or Cafgu in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental province.

What these incidents tell us very clearly is that the two sides are not ready to go back to the negotiating table, even with the new coronavirus outbreak offering a window of opportunity for them to take even a temporary respite from the fighting.

But not all hope is lost, for as long as there are groups and individuals still willing to work to get the government and the rebels to agree to a political settlement of the armed conflict.

Take, for instance, the Mindanao-based Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), which asked the two sides to formalize a reciprocal truce and use the new coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to pursue a negotiated end to the 51-year insurgency.

“We welcome this positive development (the government’s unilateral ceasefire) with high hopes that this could lead to the resumption of the formal peace negotiations,” said Augusto Miclat, IID executive director.

 Soldiers and policemen man a checkpoint in the outskirts of the Philippine capital Manila to implement the “enhanced community quarantine” aimed at containing the spread of the new coronavirus disease. (Photo by Vincent Go)

The reciprocal truce, he pointed out, could allow the parties to “refocus their efforts and resources towards a humanitarian response” to the pandemic.

“We urge both parties to unite in responding more appropriately to the COVID-19 crisis. All forms of emergency response and social protection programs for the people most affected by the virus and the lockdown policy are very much needed,” Miclat added.

Miclat emphasized that the new coronavirus crisis “is the people’s common problem right now …. It is a specter that haunts the world and the whole of humanity. Any failure to appropriately respond to this crisis could spell more danger for the people, especially for those already marginalized, ignored, and disenfranchised due to the system that breeds and tolerates social inequalities and injustices.”

Based in Davao City, IID was among the nongovernmental groups that played a key role in rallying international solidarity for an end to the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.

NGOs such as IID, along with church leaders and faith-based groups, have long been at the forefront of efforts to put an end to the fighting in the Philippines through a negotiated political settlement.

The resumption of formal peace talks between the Philippine government and NDF, if pursued to its logical conclusion, would finally put an end to the armed insurgency that has dragged on since 1968 and claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people, according to rough estimates. 

While the declared three-week truce by the two sides is too short, we hope that this opportunity to pursue a durable and lasting peace can be hammered out. We cannot have a situation where the government and the rebels engage in deadly combat even while the rest of the country — and the whole world, for that matter — desperately wants to save lives at all costs. 

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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