October 19, 2016

Second round of peace talks on track

It is the third day of the second round of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations here in Oslo, Norway.   Since three weeks ago, autumn has been officially declared (defined as five days with an average daily temperature below 10 degrees centigrade).   The weather is definitely colder than when the talks resumed in August but still pleasant in stark contrast to the deep winter freeze at the resumption of formal talks six years ago in this same venue.

It is still acutely cold for Filipinos used to the tropical clime but the warmth, friendly banter and optimistic air between the two sides was apparent from Day One.

Luis “Ka Louie” Jalandoni has just retired from chairing the NDFP Negotiating panel to give way to younger leaders of the revolutionary alliance. He remains as a senior adviser in the mold of the late Antonio “Ka Tony” Zumel.  He superbly steered the NDFP panel through very rough and even treacherous waters in negotiations with four GRP regimes from Ramos to Aquino III.

Now “Ka Fidel” Agcoaili steps forward with aplomb as the new NDFP panel chairperson whlle Benito “Ka Benny” Tiamzon has been appointed new panel member.

The opening session started with wide smiles and congeniality but later became tense, The GRP side underscored their sanguine expectations that an agreement on a bilateral ceasefire would be reached by end October, a ceasefire more stable than the unilateral, simultaneous and indefinite ceasefires declared by the two sides since last August.

The NDFP side, for its part, gave a not-so-gentle reminder that convicted NDFP consultants continue to languish in prison while no humanitarian releases of the sick, elderly, overly long detained and women political prisoners have taken place.  The general amnesty proposed in May by no less than presumptive President Rodrigo Duterte as the most efficacious way of freeing all politically prisoners is in limbo. The disappointment and frustration on the part of the NDFP side was palpable and could not be assuaged by the GRP’s assurances that they were exerting all efforts to deliver on their promises.

The NDFP stressed that such releases are a matter of justice since the political prisoners are being held on the basis of trumped-up criminal charges.  Moreover, their continuing detention is a clear violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

Chief Political Consultant “Ka Joma” SIson stated that the release of political prisoners could have served as a huge incentive for the NDFP to enter into the bilateral ceasefire. Nonetheless he, reassured the GRP side that negotiations on socio-economic reforms (SER), political and constitutional reforms (PCR) and end of hostilities and disposition of forces (EHDF) can continue in earnest. Agreements on the substantive agenda could still be reached depending on each sides’ willingness to address the root causes of the armed conflict.

Norwegian Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process, Amb.  Elisabeth Slattum, cooled down the atmosphere by suggesting a recess for a much delayed dinner. Fortunately, rather than resume after dinner for another tension-filled encounter, a short program was held to toast Ka Louie and show everyone’s appreciation for his principled and firm yet gentle leadership over the NDFP negotiating panel through close to 25 years.

There are big delegations on both sides bringing the total number to more than a hundred. On the NDFP side, the biggest number of consultants and resource persons are those working on the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER).  They had been closeted for almost a week before the second round, working hard to improve on the NDFP’s drafts from the original one completed in 1998 and turned over to the GRP panel then headed by Amb. Howard Dee.

On the GRP side, the earlier skeletal composition of their Reciprocal Working Committee (RWC)-CASER and Reciprocal Working Groups (RWGs) on PCR and EHDF has been reinforced with more members and staff persons.  The relatively larger and heavier GRP delegations (as well as better preparation it seems) for the CAPCR, CAEHDF and ceasefire apparently indicates the GRP’s interest and priorities. The GRP also brought with them a delegation from the House of Representatives.

While the RWGs on PCR and EHDF finished their task of coming up with a common outline for the draft agreements they will put flesh on in the next three months, the RWCs on CASER that are setting the pace of the negotiations are still burning the midnight oil trying to agree on their common outline.

The difficulty in arriving at a common outline for CASER portends the arduous road ahead in the peace talks since nothing less than deep-going structural reforms are necessary for uprooting Philippine society from the morass of poverty and backwardness it is mired in and thereby liberate the majority of Filipinos from intolerable suffering, exploitation and oppression.

Nothing less than a truly comprehensive and radically transformative agreement can convince the forces of the CPP-NPA-NDFP and its mass base that waging a revolutionary war is no longer necessary to bring about such a change.

Meanwhile the RNG Third Party Facilitator continues to go all out in providing a conducive atmosphere and excellent working conditions for the peace talks.  The venue for the second round is the Holmenfjord Hotel situated at the mouth of one of the many scenic fjords Norway is famous for. The placid waters and the surrounding verdant hills with the picturesque houses cannot but have a calming and rejuvenating effect on everyone, even the most agitated of negotiators.

Amb. Slattum is at her charming and efficient best as she and her staff facilitate the panel-to-panel and working committee/group meetings in a non-intrusive way, gently nudging the two sides to try to reach some agreement even when they cannot see eye-to-eye on sticky issues.

It seems that the gracious Norwegian hosts have even taken the extra effort to ask the hotel chef to prepare more Asian-like fare. Yesterday’s dinner hosted by Norwegian State Secretary Laila Bokhari was prepared by a Filipino chef and her staff imported for the purpose of preparing sinigang, adobo, mango salad, palitaw and other favorite Filipino dishes.

Food for thought was also very much in evidence.  Amb. Rita Furuseth Sandburg, RNG deputy ambassador to the Columbian peace process, gave a concise but extensive sharing including what were the conditions and factors that may have contributed to the rejection of the peace agreement in a recently held referendum.  The State Secreary Bokhari shared Norway’s affirmative action and continuing commitment to bring in women’s voices into peace processes wherever they could saying that this was “not just the right thing to do but the smart thing” as well.

All remain hopeful that significant progress will have been made at the end of this round of talks to spur the two Parties to work even harder to try to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion and to convince our people that a just and lasting peace is indeed achievable. #

Published in Business World
10 October 2016


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