April 16, 2017 7:00 am JST

Duterte faces turning point in push for safer Philippines

Manila signs historic truce with Maoist insurgents, but peace remains challenge

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

Representatives from the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front shake hands after signing a historic truce.

MANILA -- After reaching a long-awaited truce with communist rebels, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte faces a crucial test of whether he can establish lasting peace with a group that has carried out various kidnappings and terror attacks over the past five decades.

Government representatives and the National Democratic Front signed the interim cease-fire agreement April 5, following three days of negotiations in the Netherlands brokered by the Norwegian government.

"We hope this prevents further hostilities and unnecessary loss of lives on the ground," Philippine presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement welcoming the deal.

For years, communist rebels have cast a shadow over Philippine domestic politics and public security. Admirers of Mao Zedong founded the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968. The New People's Army, its militant arm, was created the following year. The NPA clashed with government forces, killing many soldiers and police officers.

Amid a crackdown by then-President Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972, the nation's leftists came together to form the NDF. The communist movement is said to have included 25,000 members at its peak.

The NPA shocked the world by kidnapping the chief of Mitsui & Co.'s Manila branch in 1986, as well as Japanese and American aid workers in 1990. The U.S. and other countries designated the group as a terrorist organization and imposed sanctions. The Philippines attempted peace talks under the presidencies of Fidel Ramos in the 1990s and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the 2000s. But armed strikes by the NPA and resulting casualties snuffed such efforts.

Duterte unilaterally announced a cease-fire with the communists in July during his state of the nation address. "Let us end these decades of ambuscades and skirmishes," he said. "We are going nowhere. And it is getting bloodier by the day."

Peace talks resumed in August. Though the discussions were interrupted by armed clashes, a scrapping of the cease-fire and other incidents, the two sides finally forged an agreement in their fourth round of talks.

Duterte's conciliatory approach is rooted in his sympathy for leftist ideas. The president has said he is not a communist, but that he was exposed to socialist ideologies as he grew up due to his humble background. He was a student of Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party and still an influential figure. Duterte has appointed several leftists to his cabinet.

But it is unclear whether the truce will last. Duterte during negotiations demanded that the NDF scrap its "revolutionary tax" -- a practice of extorting cash from companies and wealthy individuals -- as well as release captured soldiers and police officers and also halt land seizures. He insists the two sides can return to fighting if the rebels do not comply. A new cease-fire is supposed to take effect once guidelines and ground rules are agreed upon. But discussion on the revolutionary tax and other conditions has been postponed.

Until the cease-fire takes effect, military operations against the NPA will continue, military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said Thursday. The communists ultimately wish to create an independent state, and many do not believe they are ready to compromise with the government. Some members of the military are also thought to have reservations about peace with the NPA, a group that has killed many of their colleagues.

Duterte sees better public security as key for national development. The idea underpins his commitment to a deadly war on drugs. The president also is considering peace talks with the Philippines' armed Islamic insurgents, who are responsible for a number of terror attacks.

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