The Communists recently learned an important lesson when dealing with the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte that poker players everywhere already know: Don’t bluff too much if you don’t have the hand because your opponent just might call it.
The collapse of the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People’s Army has obviously hurt the revolutionaries more than the state. This is why the radicals are now engaged in a charm offensive to woo the government back to the negotiating table—the same government the NPA suddenly hit with a withdrawal of its unilateral ceasefire, the event that sparked the talks’ collapse.
The rebel line these days states that the peace talks can still continue even if the unilateral ceasefires are no longer in effect. In fact, ceasefires like those called by the government and rebel forces in this country whenever they decide to go to the negotiating table are unheard-of in other places with similar experience with insurgencies, the Communists say, and are often counter-productive because they raise expectations of peace to unreasonable levels.
It sure is refreshing to hear the rebels make an appeal to reason and to express a willingness to compromise. Never mind if by their recent actions, the rebels actually brought the current unfavorable (to them, anyway) state of affairs upon themselves.
The Communists’ obvious original strategy was to bluff the government into releasing the 400 or so remaining political detainees that the CPP-NDF-NPA wanted freed. The NPA’s decision to lift the ceasefire—even as the negotiating panels of both sides had just concluded the second round of talks in Rome—probably came as a surprise even to the rebel panel itself, which was still in the thick of negotiations with the government side on various issues that did not yet include the ceasefires declared earlier by both protagonists.
The only inkling anyone had that the negotiations were imperiled was the escalation of charges between the military and the rebels of violations of their respective ceasefires. But then, without the existence of an independent monitoring group that would act as a referee and decide on the reported violations, many dismissed the reports as the usual propaganda efforts of both sides, in a bid to sway public opinion.
To his credit, Duterte didn’t immediately tell state negotiators to leave the table. Until days later, that is, when the bloody killing by rebel partisans of three off-duty soldiers in Malaybalay, Bukidnon took place.
It was while visiting the wake of the slain soldiers that Duterte decided to call the Communists’ bluff. Not only did he order the end of the government’s own ceasefire, he also told the government to get out of the negotiations and ordered the re-arrest of the entire NDF advisory panel that he had freed.
By the time Duterte had declared that the NPA was a terrorist organization and ordered the military to clean their rifles in preparation for the resumption of war with the Communists, the rebels were again suing for peace. And those like me who had been observing the actions of the CPP-NDF-NPA since the resumption of the peace talks under the Duterte administration now believe that public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of the government.
Duterte called the Communists’ bluff. And he cleared the table when the rebels folded.
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I remain hopeful, however, that the Communists and the government will return to the negotiating table sometime in the near future. And even if an agreement that will finally put a permanent end to hostilities between both war-weary sides is not signed during Duterte’s time, as long as both sides keep talking to each other, I believe that the prospects for peace remain bright.
But I hope that the leftist rebels, whose strength has already been much reduced in recent years due to a confluence of many internal and external factors, return to the negotiations with a better understanding of who they’re dealing with—and a new, more credible commitment to crack the whip on their own people on the ground. It only erodes the Communists’ negotiating position, after all, if it cannot prove that the cadres in the countryside no longer take orders from the exiled old men in Europe.
And I hope that the rebels let go of their insupportable belief that they are like the Moro rebels in Mindanao who have camps and territories that the military cannot enter. The members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, after all, have an ancestral and cultural claim to the camps and territories that they hold—unlike the Communists, who have never had any real presence for any length of time in the areas where they supposedly hold sway.
At this point, the Communist rebels must prove that theirs is still a legitimate revolutionary movement with real popular support. They should be able to convince the government and the people that they belong to a working organization whose low-level cadres in the field take orders from the highest levels of the politburo in Utrecht.
The leaders and members of the CPP-NDF-NPA must be able to reverse the growing perception that they are mere relics of a violent and failed revolution, headed by an irrelevant leadership that still hangs on to an ideologically bankrupt philosophy of class warfare. They cannot be allow themselves to be classified as a terrorist organization whose autonomous local chieftains survive by extortion and banditry in the countryside.
It’s harder than ever for the Communists to gain the sympathy of the people whose best interests they are supposed to be fighting for if they keep making mistakes like the ones they made in the past week or so. Nobody wants war to continue, but the radical leftists now seem to be in dire danger of losing the struggle by default.