Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects an automatic rifle at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, on June 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects an automatic rifle at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, on June 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

“I am here to bully you and to kill you because there’s a war going on between us and you are killing my soldiers,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently lashed out at exiled Communist Party of the Philippines’ (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison.

“Maybe I will kill you if I have the chance.”

The Filipino president’s fiery comments against his former college professor and mentor came in response to escalating tensions between the Philippine government and communist rebels.

There are indications the insurgent group, the CPP’s affiliated New People’s Army (NPA), has seized on the government’s pre-occupation with combating Islamic State-affiliate groups in the besieged city of Marawi to up the momentum of its attacks.

A series of armed encounters between the two sides, as well as the recent raising of a luxury tourist compound by NPA rebels, has put Duterte’s once hopeful peace initiative with the decades-old insurgency in a state of limbo.

The fifth rounds of talks, which were scheduled for May and are being held with Sison’s National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), a coalition of left-leaning organizations including the CPP and NPA, were called off. Duterte has since said that there won’t be any talks unless the fighting stops and a comprehensive ceasefire takes hold.

In recent weeks, communist rebels have declared a de facto war against Duterte’s martial law proclamation, which they view as an unjust pretext to clamp down on rebel groups.

NDFP chief Jose Maria Sison at the opening ceremony of formal peace talks between the Philippine government and communist groups in Rome on January 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tiziana Fabi

Sison has lambasted Dutetre as a “lunatic who takes pride in extrajudicial killings,” and is “drunk with power and thinks he can just order revolutionaries to surrender.”

When Duterte won the presidency last year, he made it clear that aside from combating illegal drugs, his other priority would be to break the deadlock in peace negotiations with major rebel groups, particularly communists.

The self-described ‘socialist’ president is widely known for his long history of cordial relations with communist rebels, whom he partially tolerated and dealt with while serving as mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City.

As a confidence-building measure, Duterte released from prison major rebel leaders, including the Tiamzon couple, who have been the de facto chiefs of the communist movement in the Philippines in recent decades.

In an unprecedented move in Philippine history, Duterte also offered several cabinet positions to communist-leaning individuals, who are now in charge of social welfare, agrarian reform and labor departments.

National Democratic Front of the Philippines’ members hold a demonstration in Manila calling for peace negotiations and social economic reforms on January 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

To expedite the peace drive, Duterte also introduced a new modality into the process by agreeing to discuss and negotiate several areas of disagreement simultaneously. He appointed veteran peace negotiators Silvestre Bello III and Jesus Dureza to oversee the process.

At one point, Duterte even suggested that he might facilitate the return of Sison, the communist ideologue and the movement’s inspirational head, from the Netherlands, where he has been exiled for several decades.

“Once more I am grateful to President Duterte for his acts of goodwill to move forward the peace negotiations between his government and [communist rebels],” declared Sison in August last year, as the peace negotiations rapidly gained pace.

“President Duterte and I remain good friends…Our friendship has a strong basis in…desire to serve the national and democratic rights and best interests of the Filipino people.”

Two key factors underwrote the initial positive momentum of the peace process. On one hand, communist rebels, while strong in central peripheral regions of Mindanao and other poverty-stricken areas of the country, have lost much of their previous armed strength.

A New People’s Army (NPA) camp on the southern island of Mindanao in a 2014 file photo. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Throughout the 1980s, they had an estimated 25,000 armed regulars, but fractious infighting, internal purges and relatively effective counter-insurgency efforts by the Philippine military has reduced that number to around 4,000 rebels under arms in recent years.

Meanwhile, the government has also focused on bringing development to rural areas and ending the various insurgencies which have hemorrhaged the country’s military capabilities.

This is particularly crucial in light of rising external threats on the Philippines’ western and eastern flanks, namely in the South China Sea and Benham Rise maritime areas, as well as hopes of attracting investment to the neglected and under-developed peripheries.

By the end of 2016, as Duterte concluded his first six months in office, the two sides seemed on the verge of achieving the impossible. Peace negotiations with the communists heavily dominated the government’s agenda, relegating parallel efforts with Muslim rebel groups to a secondary priority.

Now, however, the table has turned, with Duterte shifting his focus to peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) amid the rise of Islamic State-affiliated groups in Mindanao and the virtual breakdown in negotiations with communist rebels.

Certain of the IS-aligned groups were previously linked to the MILF, which has publicly opposed the harsh tactics used by the militants in their siege of Marawi.

A Filipino soldier in combat position as government troops continue their assault against Islamic State-affiliated insurgents in Marawi city on July 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

The president is expected to designate a revised version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) — the crucial legal framework for the creation of a Muslim-dominated sub-state unit in the southern Philippines — as a priority bill.

This would revive hopes of an enduring alliance with the government and moderate rebel groups against extremist elements in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

Negotiations with communist rebels have bogged down on three interrelated factors. First, intermittent clashes between rebel groups and the military have raised concerns over whether the communist leadership is fully in control of its rank and file as well as regional commanders.

Second, there is still stiff opposition within the defense establishment, particularly among leading officials in the military, to what they perceive as excessive concessions to the rebels, who have demanded the release of a growing number of their jailed comrades in recent months.

New People’s Army foot soldiers in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Third, the communist rebels oppose the government’s demand for a comprehensive ceasefire ahead of a final binding agreement, suspecting this could be used by the military as a pretext to infiltrate their areas of control.

They have also sternly opposed Duterte’s martial law declaration in Mindanao, which Congress agreed over the weekend to extend until the end of the year, for similar reasons.

Decades of bloody conflict have left deep wounds in the hearts and minds of both sides, particularly among the armed wing of the communist movement and the Philippine military. While both sides are expected to eventually return to the negotiating table, their is no clear end or much mutual agreement in sight.

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