PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday he would give safe conduct passes to exiled communist leader Jose Ma. Sison and fugitive Moro leader Nur Misuari, as formal talks with the rebel groups are set to start by the end of the year.
Speaking before troops at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Duterte also defended his decision to declare a unilateral ceasefire with the communist rebels, a decision he said was made collectively by his Cabinet.
“I have initiated talks within the Cabinet about this. I have to start with releasing the leaders not on anything but safe conduct passes for Sison and Misuari,” Duterte said.
“I don’t know if one day, there could be a mess or trouble. It is always a comforting thought that I have an Armed Forces that’s ready in case we cannot understand each other,” Duterte said.
“My mission in this presidency is peace, and I have to talk to the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front]) and MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] and even Nur [Misuari] and [Al Hadj] Murad, [who say] they’re always ready to talk peace,” he added.
In his State of the Nation Address last Monday, Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, calling for an “end to the violence on the ground” and the restoration of peace in the communities and a resumption in peace talks.
He also urged the communists to “end these decades of ambuscades and bloody skirmishes.”
Communist Party of the Philippines founder Sison, who is seeking political asylum in The Netherlands, was Duterte’s former professor of political thought at the Lyceum of the Philippines. He acts as chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front.
Misuari is the founder of the MNLF and has been reportedly hiding in plain sight in Sulu, openly mingling with the local folk who have remained loyal to him and have protected him from the authorities, who want to arrest him for his alleged role in the bloody 2013 Zamboanga siege.
Before declaring a ceasefire, the government announced that peace negotiations would be pushed back to Aug. 20-27 so that communist consultants who are under detention can be released ahead of talks in Oslo, Norway.
The government and the MILF will resume talks in early August at Kuala Lumpur to discuss a “new enabling law” to re-implement the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).
With a scheduled return of the peace process to be marked by “a big, formal event,” Peace Process adviser Jesus Dureza said that the resumption will take place on Aug. 15-21.
In his Sona, Duterte said he had the concurrence of the Cabinet before declaring a unilateral ceasefire.
“Let me explain to you the unilateral ceasefire, it is not my decision alone. It is the decision of the Cabinet,” Duterte said.
“I am a President that seeks peace with everyone. My work as President is not to find trouble but to see that there’s no mess here. The military should be there ready to guard the integrity of the republic and to protect the people,” he added.
After his 105-minute Sona, Duterte met with leftist leaders and assured them that steps would be undertaken for an eventual military pullout in communities so that lumad evacuees in Mindanao could return safely to their ancestral homes.
Progressive groups have long been calling for a pullout of military troops in lumad communities, which they said have been militarized.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bayan, said they talked about peace and how the President wanted to devote more resources to social services once the armed conflict was resolved.
“He talked about how the lumad can return home without fear for their safety. It was a long meeting… It was a gesture we truly appreciated,” Reyes said.
“He will work out some mode on how the ceasefire can help the lumad return home,” he added.
Leftist groups have accused the military of encouraging paramilitary groups to attack the lumad as part of their anti-insurgency drive.
Armed Forces spokesman Restituto Padilla, however, denied any pullout.
“There won’t be any pullout because we have a mandate to protect our territory and the communities that we need to secure from leftist rebels,” Padilla told radio dzRB.
He said the law mandates the military to protect indigeonous communities.
“There is no truth to their statements that communities were being militarized,” he added.
On Tuesday, Armed Forces chief Gen. Ricardo Visaya ordered all unit commanders to implement a suspension of military operations (SOMO) against the communist New People’s Army, one day after Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire in his State of the Nation Address.
Visaya said all commanders of major services, unified commands, and service support units are ordered to implement a SOMO.
But he said there would be no pullout of troops in areas where soldiers are urgently needed to deliver social services to people, especially in remote areas.
“While there is SOMO against the NPA, our troops will continue to support or provide forces for the Philippine National Police in law enforcement operations against lawless elements and criminal groups,” Visaya said.
Visaya said it is also the mandate of the AFP to protect communities from terrorism including economic sabotage against vital government facilities, infrastructures and projects.
In a statement, the leftist Karapatan group hailed Duterte’s unilateral ceasefire but urged him though to pullout troops and paramilitary groups from civilian communities.
“They [military troops] should be brought back to their barracks. That is the only way by which the lumad evacuees can safely return to their homes. The declaration should also pave the way for the rescinding of Oplan Bayanihan, along with its deceptive Whole of Nation Initiative,” Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said.
Palabay also urged Duterte to abandon the “US-driven counter-insurgency program that has resulted to numerous rights violations as an expression of a genuinely independent foreign policy.”
“The unilateral ceasefire declaration should also lead to the release of all political prisoners, through a general, omnibus and unconditional amnesty declaration,” Palabay said.
She also appealed to Duterte to stop extrajudicial killings, whether political or drug-related.
In a phone interview, 4th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal said ground commanders were awaiting guidelines from higher authorities regarding the mechanics of the ceasefire.
Madrigal said the military was most willing to provide transportation for all the lumad evacuees to return to the homes.
The Eastern Mindanao Command welcomed Duterte’s declaration of a ceasefire.
“We are in one with the President by calling the NPA to reciprocate it with the same,” the command’s spokesman, Major Ezra Balagtey, said.
“The ceasefire will be effective immediately, but the mandate to protect the communities will remain,” he said.
Earlier, National Democratic Front spokesman Fidel Agcaoili said that they are ready to reciprocate a ceasefire. With F. Pearl A. Gajunera
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