MINDANAO, Philippines — Amid the proposed peace talks with maoist rebels in Oslo on August 20, the Philippine government has warned them that their continuous use of landmines against soldiers and civilians may force the government to pull out of the talks.
President Rodrigo Duterte gave this ultimatum to the rebels while addressing soldiers in Davao City.
He blamed the Communist Party of Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) for the landmine blast that killed four soldiers soon after he declared a unilateral ceasefire with the group in July.
The New People’s Army (NPA) is the military arm of the Community Party of the Philippines (CPP) headed by Jose Maria Sison who lives in exile in Netherlands. It has around 4,000 active armed guerrillas in the Philippines.
The deaths occurred during a firefight between Philippine soldiers and NPA rebels in Monkayo Town, Compostella Valley Province. Twelve soldiers were injured in the 45-minute gun battle.
Duterte said the NPA rebels are arrogant and acting like bandits.
“Do not use that land mine. If I hear one more explosion, goodbye, and your peace panel, come home, don’t waste your money there and talk nonsense,” he was quoted by the Associated Press.
“These communists, if you’re listening, you have been at war with this government for 45 years. Do you want to fight another 45 years?”
The CPP, however, ignored Duterte’s ultimatum on the use of landmines saying he was just trying to pacify the armed forces.
It said the president’s stand on the peace process began wavering after he started going around military camps, adding that waging people’s war has always been the path to strengthen the revolution and accumulate its victories.
Luis Jalandoni, chairperson of the rebels’ negotiating panel National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), told media that the type of explosive used in the attack has not been prohibited by international treaties.
“… the use of command-detonated land mines is not violative of the Geneva Convention and the Ottawa Treaty,” Jalandoni said.
The Philippines is one of 162 nations that signed an international treaty in Ottawa and the Geneva Convention to prohibit the use of landmines in their respective countries.
NDFP views that international treaties prohibit only the use of victim-triggered explosives that do not discriminate targets.
While hostilities between the Philippine government and NPA rebels continue, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is continuing its offensive against 300 heavily armed Abu Sayyaf rebels in Basilan where they are still holding a Norwegian captive.
At least 50 Abu Sayyaf rebels have been reportedly killed since the fighting began in July.
Like NPA rebels, Abu Sayyaf militants too are showing defiance to the appeals by the leftist-leaning Duterte to stop the war.
Duterte has been visiting war zones in Southern Philippines and persuading communities to stop conflicts.
He may opt for an all-out war against militants only if talks fail and they still keep attacking soldiers and civilians.
Interior and local government minister Ismael Sueno and armed forces chief of staff Ricardo Visaya told The Philippine Star that Duterte had even thought of imposing martial law in rebel areas in the south, adding they backed his plan as the best way to reduce violence in such areas.
Prior to winning the presidency last May 2016, the tough-taking mayor of Davao City used to visit NPA rebel camps to express his sympathy over their plight.
In fact, he was behind many negotiations that led to the release of hostages held by rebels.
Tackling insurgency is among Duterte’s top priorities. His predecessors had failed to secure a permanent peace deal with the communist rebels.
So to bring them to the negotiating table, he even appointed leftist leaders to powerful cabinet posts when he became the president.
It is a make-or-break situation for Duterte as the day of Oslo talks approaches and he may walk the extra mile for peace.
Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com