Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has told government forces to brace for a long fight against New People’s Army (NPA) communist rebels after the collapse of a ceasefire and renewed hostilities. Duterte, who scrapped his side of a six-month-old truce on Friday after NPA fighters killed six government soldiers and kidnapped two others, warned the insurgent group that the civil war would last another 50 years if necessary.
Recognized as one of Southeast Asia’s oldest insurgencies, with hostilities dating back to 1969, the NPA are now believed to have as many as 4,000 members under arms. Until the latest ceasefire broke down, Duterte’s government had engaged the NPA and its associated National Democratic Front of the Philippines coalition, in talks mediated by Norway. Those talks, including a recent round held in Rome, foundered on the rebels’ insistence that the government release some 400 rebels detained in its custody.
The next round of talks, which Duterte has said are scrapped but has not yet formally terminated, was scheduled for February 22-25 in Oslo. NPA advisors have said they would prefer to continue the process, which apparently had gradually progressed until the recent renewed hostilities.
Luis Jalandoni, an advisor to the NPA, said the military was also to blame for the ceasefire’s breakdown because it had deployed troops in around 500 villages and openly conducted counter-insurgency and surveillance activities in rebel areas, according to news reports. Duterte has said those released to participate in talks would be arrested if they reentered the Philippines, though its not clear if such a move would be legal, the reports said.
Local groups in Mindanao have called on cooler heads to prevail. A network of clerics and civil society groups working for peace released a public statement calling on both sides to persevere with the peace process. “We are afraid of innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire between the government and rebel forces and the conflict has killed at least 40,000 people since it began 47 years ago,” the statement said.
It is not the first time the delicate six-month-old ceasefire’s terms had been broken. Just weeks after the two sides declared their respective ceasefires in August last year, a firefight in Makilala, North Cotabato left one rebel dead. The talks nonetheless continued with at least four rounds held so far.
Analysts now fear the situation could deteriorate rapidly as both sides potentially dig in to reclaim perceived lost ground during the truce. Soon after Duterte scrapped his side of the ceasefire, the NPA called on him to remove government troops from 500 villages in areas it has traditionally operated or controlled.
Prior to his election to the presidency, Duterte was known during his tenure as mayor of Davao City to have good relations with the NPA and NDFP. Then, he was the only known elected public official who could access rebel NPA camps to attend their special events and occasions. In one instance, he had even convinced NPA rebels to release kidnapping victims they held. It is also believed the NPA and NDFP helped to deliver a significant number of votes during Duterte’s run for the presidency.
In what some saw as a quid pro quo, Duterte appointed known leftist leaders to his Cabinet, including to the key departments of labor, social welfare and development, and agrarian reform. The NPA welcomed Duterte’s moves and many Filipinos expressed high hopes the fighting would finally come to an end under Duterte. Previous governments also made overtures towards the NPA that were originally accepted and later rejected.
It is not immediately clear if Duterte can be coaxed back soon to the negotiation table. While Duterte prepared his government forces for a new long war against communist guerrillas, his peace negotiators, including peace adviser Jesus Dureza and chief negotiator Silvestre Bello III, sent conflicting signals over the weekend by saying that Duterte had only ended the ceasefire but not the entire peace process.
“The road to just and lasting peace is not easy to traverse,” Dureza was quoted saying in media reports after the president cancelled the ceasefire. “There are humps and bumps, and curbs and detours along the way. What is important is that we all stay the course.”
If instead the fighting against the NPA intensifies, as Duterte suggests it will, Philippine forces will be stretched to win on the battlefield. While government troops are still engaged in active fighting against Islamic rebel groups – including some who have announced their loyalty to ISIS – in the country’s southern regions, Duterte also announced last week he would deploy troops to assist police in his ongoing war on drugs campaign.