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Cut in Dialogue Seen Briefly Empowering Philippines Rebels

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s order this month to stop peace talks with a violent group of communist rebels may spark new clashes but eventually weaken the group’s already waning influence.

Duterte announced Thursday an end to peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front-Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army, the presidential office website says.

Duterte found the communists lacked “sincerity and commitment” because of recent attacks on people and property, his office said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at the start of a banquet hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter's official residence in Tokyo, Oct. 30, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at the start of a banquet hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter's official residence in Tokyo, Oct. 30, 2017.

“I think Duterte knows very well and the armed forces know very well these groups are not large enough to mount a serious threat to the government,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

On Saturday, the National Democratic Front’s chief political consultant, Jose Maria Sison, called Duterte “a big liar.” The president had vowed to form a coalition government before he was elected in May 2016 but does not want one, Sison said in a statement.

Risk of short-term violence

The break in talks, though not a first, raises the threat of new attacks by the disgruntled New People’s Army (NPA), the armed side of Asia's oldest communist insurgency, analysts say. The rebels had hoped for a coalition with the government.

But those attacks would end quickly as the army strikes back and the communist movement is losing support anyway, experts add.

“Perhaps they will be more active now in pursuing the NPA or members of the Communist Party, and that can also lead to a response on the part of the NPA to be more active in challenging the government forces,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.

People who “sympathize” with the communist groups may be “subjected to harassment” as well, she said.

Five decades of rebellion

The 50-year-old insurgency traditionally draws support in rural areas where their ideology appeals to poor people facing a perceived “social inequality” such as a lack of land reform, said Carl Baker, director of programs with the think tank Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

In June a unit of the New People’s Army attacked an army base in the Bicol region east of Manila, killing one soldier and injuring at least four. The government blamed the same forces for killing four police officers on the southern island Mindanao in June.

More force, less support

The military, increasingly supported by China as well as long-time backer the United States, has shown resolve to quash rebels since Duterte took office in June 2016.

Duterte’s troops stepped up a fight against the Islamic State-backed Abu Sayyaf Group last year and this year defeated the Maute Group, also Muslim rebels, in a conflict that left more than 1,000 dead. His government declared war against the armed communist group in February after talks broke down then and said existing firepower would be enough to win.

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photographers on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 15, 2017.
FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photographers on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 15, 2017.

Strikes against the communist army would create little backlash as few Filipinos support their cause or tactics, analysts say.

“The group is treacherous,” said Dexter Feliciano, Filipino voter and founder of a startup firm in Metro Manila. “This administration is the most serious of all administrations in ending the conflict. These are all criminal elements now. These are actually terrorists.”

Some Filipinos worry the communist front’s nominal leadership lacks control over its chain of cells, including some outside the capital Manila that have extorted taxes from businesses.

The communist organization's armed unit relies on 4,000 combatants, down from a peak in the 1980s, according to the local news outlet Rappler.com, citing military sources. The party claims about 70,000 members.

Talks struggled to take shape

Talks between government negotiators and the communist group in Norway have stopped three times, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines says in a statement on its website.

“It has been the sad experience of the NDFP…as well as the (government’s) own personnel, to be subjected to the whimsical and arbitrary outbursts of President Duterte,” the statement says.

Duterte probably felt slighted after he agreed last year to the release of 20 political prisoners but got “nothing” in return, Araral said. The government also announced a unilateral ceasefire in July.

By stopping talks, the government denies the rebels a chance to show force and prove for negotiation purposes that it's not "spent," he said.

Police and soldiers take position as they engage with the Abu Sayyaf group in the village of Napo, Inabanga town, Bohol province, in the central Philippines on April 11, 2017.
Police and soldiers take position as they engage with the Abu Sayyaf group in the village of Napo, Inabanga town, Bohol province, in the central Philippines on April 11, 2017.

The president had wanted the negotiations as part of a “long-standing commitment” to pursue peace and be known as the president who attained it, Araral added. Through the peace talks, Araral said, the president “learned his lesson.”

Peace anyway, or more presidential power?

The Duterte administration “remains committed to achieving a secure, progressive, and peaceful nation ‘by ensuring durable security, public order, and safety,’” the presidential office website said Friday, quoting a proclamation on the end of talks.

The Communists say Duterte just wants more power.

“Now, he is being carried away by his obsession to establish a fascist dictatorship through charter change under the pretext of adopting a pseudo-federal system under his over-centralized despotism and terrorism,” Sison said on the National Democratic Front website Saturday.

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