Gov’t, communist rebels move closer to truce
Government and communist rebel negotiators are on the verge of resuming formal peace talks after the two sides adopted an interim truce agreement that stopped short of requiring insurgents to lay down their arms.
The rebels, however, must end or suspend their collection of “revolutionary tax.”
The provisional agreement, according to Inquirer sources, was based on a broad outline of a bilateral ceasefire that the negotiating panels of the government and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) had agreed upon as early as last year.
The two-page document was signed on April 5, 2017, at The Hague by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, head of the government panel, and its members — Hernani Braganza, Rene Sarmiento, Angela Trinidad and Antonio Arellano.
Fidel Agcaoili, the rebel panel chair, Julieta de Lima, Coni Ledesma, Asterio Palima and Benito Tiamzon signed for the NDFP, the umbrella group of local communist organizations.
Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding chair Jose Maria Sison, the NDFP’s chief political consultant, and Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza also signed the document.
One of the sources said the agreement had been set aside following President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to cancel the talks last year but it was now being used as a “working guide” by the negotiators and served as the basis for the interim deal.
The agreement requires the ceasefire committees of both sides to meet separately to finalize guidelines for the truce to hold.
The source said one of the guidelines would cover what the rebels call “revolutionary tax.”
The New People’s Army, the CPP’s armed wing, collects taxes from businessmen and politicians in areas where they operate to raise funds for operations, food, supplies and aid to sympathetic communities or to indemnify victims of crossfires.
The military calls the rebel taxation plain extortion.
One source involved in the ongoing back-channel talks in the Netherlands said an alternative that could convince the NPA to cease its tax collection was to replace the money the rebels collect with funds from other sources.
The President has said the rebels must stop collecting revolutionary taxes as a gesture of sincerity in the negotiations to peacefully end the nearly half-century Maoist insurgency.
The source said countries that supported the peace process could provide the funds.
“No [Philippine] government fund will be used,” the source stressed, although the President earlier said he was willing to finance food supplies for the rebels and the communities they influenced.
“Donor countries” would be allowed to provide funding, but only for the noncombat needs of the rebels, the source said.
No country has yet been identified as a potential fund source, he added.
Just how much would be needed for the noncombat needs of the rebels for the duration of the talks was uncertain.
The military, quoted in a December 2017 report by the Inquirer, estimated that the NPA collects up to P460 million a year in revolutionary taxes in Southern Mindanao alone.
Another Inquirer source said that under a formal ceasefire deal rebels and soldiers would be restricted to their camps or positions, which would be called “buffer zones.”
The rebels also cannot launch operations to enforce taxation, according to the source.
Suspending or ending rebel taxation would be crucial to meeting one of the President’s conditions for resuming negotiations—a cessation of hostilities.
Both sides were also listing down what would be considered hostile acts during the implementation of the formal ceasefire, the sources said.
Surrender of firearms
Government negotiators were trying to work around a key NDFP condition in the talks—that the rebels would not be required to surrender their weapons until a permanent peace deal had already been signed.
Braganza, who had been involved in the talks under Presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III, said in an interview last year that he understood the rebel sentiment.
“We should not offer them terms of surrender,” said Braganza, a former youth activist during martial law.
“We are bringing to the table hope that we could work together to lift the people out of poverty, change the country,” Braganza said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.