The Philippines’ top defense official said Monday he would not recommend a Christmastime ceasefire with communist rebels despite a directive from President Rodrigo Duterte to explore the possibility of resuming peace talks with them.
The guerrillas would likely exploit a pause in military offensives against them by trying to recruit more members, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in rejecting a potential truce with the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Philippine communist party.
Lorenzana said there would be no let-up in intensified operations as the military sought to end the NPA’s 50-year-old insurgency, which has left thousands dead.
“No. We will not recommend a ceasefire. Let us just not resort to a ceasefire,” Lorenzana told reporters. “Usually if there’s a ceasefire, the soldiers go back to their barracks because the operations are stopped. But the rebels deceitfully work their way to villages to increase their power.”
In 2018, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) declared a unilateral ceasefire, directing the NPA to silence its guns over the holidays. But despite that, Lorenzana said, the rebels had carried on with their attacks.
“We are the only ones who follow the ceasefire,” the defense chief said.
Last week, President Duterte directed Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to talk to CPP founder Jose Maria Sison in a bid to revive the peace talks. This was a turnaround from Duterte’s earlier pronouncement that Manila would no longer negotiate with the guerrillas until his six-year term ended in 2022.
“All of us, even in the military, support the president. But what I want to say to Mr. Sison is that he should also be sincere. The president has always said that peace talks will always have a place in his governance,” Lorenzana said.
Sison, who is in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands, welcomed Duterte’s overtures, but said the talks should be held in a third country.
“I think there needs to be several steps before we could reach a point of having peace negotiations in the Philippines,” Sison said in a statement.
If the Philippine government was sincere in its offer of peace talks, it should free detained communist rebels and revoke orders to arrest members of the communist party’s peace negotiating panel.
In 2017, Duterte called off peace talks with the rebels after the CPP continued launching deadly attacks.
“I think the president is intelligent enough to see there is also a benefit for him and his administration that the peace negotiations be resolved,” Sison said.
Since the talks were suspended, the military said it had arrested dozens of prominent communist figures, disrupting the group’s chain of command from the CPP leadership down to its guerrillas in the field.
Shortly after taking office in mid-2016, Duterte, a self-described leftist and a former student of Sison, opened peace talks with the CPP and released dozens of detained insurgent leaders as a goodwill measure.But Duterte subsequently pulled out from the talks, accusing the communist rebels of continuing with attacks on government targets, especially in the countryside.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Rinoza contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines and Manila.