If it was a portent of things to come, peace in the Philippine countryside may come earlier than expected.
Inside the hotel function room aptly named Nobel – he of the Alfred Nobel Peace Prize fame – halfway around the globe, men and women in their resplendent Barong Tagalog milled around and exchanged pleasantries.
Most of them traveled more than 30 hours and 9,681 kilometers to end 48 years of armed rebellion that has killed more than 150,000 and displaced millions of Filipinos.
It was the start of the formal resumption of peace negotiations between the Philippine government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), a process that started in 1986 but yet has to see a a final and lasting conclusion.
In fact, it has never reached the more substantive agenda of the peace process.
But on August 26, at the end of the 5-day peace negotiations that began on a Monday (August 22), the two parties in the armed conflict agreed to six major points in the first round of formal talks under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Although the final peace agreement is still a long way to go, both parties agreed to accelerate the process and before they left, ended it with a high note with a joint statement.
The NDFP also declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire of its own effective upon the expiry of its August 21-27 limited ceasefire declaration to match President Duterte’s own re-imposition of a similar announcement.
It was something the GPR panel had wished for before flying to Oslo.
Norwegian facilitator Elizabeth Slattum was pleasantly surprised with the ease with which both panels breezed past some of the contentious issues in the first round agenda.
She noted how much respect both panels have to each other.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, at the closing ceremony of the 5-day talks, remarked that it was the ‘most kind and warm’ negotiations he has ever witnessed.
Much of the close-door sessions were spiked with jokes and anecdotes prompting the facilitators to wonder if the two parties were indeed at war with each other for over 4 decades.
On the main, it was the NDFP panel who submitted the draft and language of the content of the joint statement with the GRP improving on some points.
What was thought to be hard and contentious negotiations turned out to be, in the words of Presidential Assistant for Peace Process Jesus Dureza, a ‘no-sweat’ affair.
The swift but substantial agreement reached during the formal rounds of the Oslo talks was undoubtedly made easy with the ‘unprecedented and historic releases’ of NDFP consultants, among them Benito and Wilma Tiamzon reportedly the chair and secretary general respectively of the Communist Party of the Philippines at the time of their arrest in March 2015.
Past peace negotiations hosted by Norway – notably between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Israeli government – were so hostile opposing camps cannot be seated across each other in one room.
But in Oslo, both the GRP and NDFP panels wore their national costume, exchanged tokens, shook hands and embraced each other before sitting apart across the table. It was a surreal scene, making one think it was a cabinet meeting in the Philippines – sans the Philippine president – rather than negotiations between two warring adversaries.
The peace talks were without their tense moments.
Notable among them is the list of 87 NDFP consultants who are assuming pseudonyms.
But it took only one 5-minute break before both agreed that GPH panel head and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III be allowed to randomly pick 5 names with accompanying photos to ensure that the encrypted list contains data.
Talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP collapsed after the rebels demanded the release of a consultant included in the JASIG list who was arrested by the military while formal talks were ongoing before it was suspended in 2011.
The previous JASIG list, which stands for Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantee, deposited in a bank vault in The Netherlands was reportedly corrupted when both panels tried to verify the identity of the arrested NDF consultant.
Former government panel member Alexander Padilla claimed the first JASIG list did not contain any data at all.
The release of detained NDF consultants proved to be the decisive factor in the resumption of the peace talks and a paradigm shift in the government’s tact and approach to the peace process has allowed both parties to easily build the needed trust to move the negotiations into the next level.
President Duterte had made it known, even during the presidential campaign period, he would re-open talk with the communist rebels and he would like to see an end to the war in the countryside at ‘all costs.”
While previous administrations anchored their peace campaign to pacification and ‘surrender’, Duterte has said he is willing to walk the extra mile to achieve lasting peace – including amending the Constitution to accommodate the aspirations of all rebel forces and to include the Moro rebels in Mindanao.
To prove his commitment, Duterte appointed several known personalities of the Left to his cabinet and many former communist rebels have found positions in the mid and low rung levels of the bureaucracy.
To cap it, he reappointed and added progressive personalities to the government negotiating panel who were given wide latitude and freehand to organize and recruit members of the different reciprocal committees that would negotiate with the NDF.
With a commitment to grant amnesty to all detained NDF and CPP-NPA members, the condition and atmosphere of the peace talks have gone from adversarial and animosity-laden to candid, jovial and optimistic.
It helps that the backdoor channeling was stepped up in the days leading to the formal resumption of the peace process.
And the Skype conversation between President Duterte and Communist Party of the Philippines founding chair Jose Ma. Sison in May after the president won the election set the tone for the resumption of the formal peace negotiations.
As the next round of talks approaches, the armed hostilities between government forces and the New People’s Army appeared to have subsided and the unilateral ceasefire declarations by both parties seem to be holding.]
“It is indicative of the sincerity of both parties in the (peace) process which augurs well for peace,” Bello said of the lull in the fighting in a press release.
It can be recalled that President Rodrigo Duterte re-imposed a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire on the eve of the formal resumption of the peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF) on August 22 to create a favorable condition for the negotiations.
The NDF in return extended its weeklong goodwill ceasefire (August 21-27) to also declare its own unilateral and indefinite ceasefire when the first round of talks in Oslo ended on August 26.
Both parties are expected to agree to an interim ceasefire agreement while the peace talks are ongoing when the next round of formal talks resumes in Oslo on October 4-10.
Bello, however, is hoping “this will ripen to a bilateral and permanent ceasefire and finally the end of hostilities.”
Balance of forces
The Philippine military has placed the armed strength of the NPA at 4,000 fully armed regulars.
It is down from the alleged high of 25,000 regulars during the height of its combat strength in the 1980s before the 1986 EDSA Revolt.
The military said internal strife and dissention, coupled with intense military operations have reduced the armed strength and capabilities of the communist rebels.
While acknowledging that they were hit by internal ideological debates that led to numerous battlefield defeats and dissension, the NPAs has since “fully recovered.”
In 2012, NPA national operational command head Jorge Madlos, a.k.a Ka Oris, said they have regained their armed strength and are now operating in more than 126 guerilla fronts spread out in 72 provinces.
At that time, Madlos declined to reveal the total number of their armed regulars.
But in Oslo, NDFP chief negotiator Luis Jalandoni said the total armed strength of the NPA has now reached an all time high of 10,000 armed combatants, more than half of which are in Mindanao.
(In an earlier interview, CPP founding chair Jose Ma. Sison claimed the NPA never reached the 10,000 mark of armed regulars going up only to as high as 8,000 combatants during its 1980s peak)
The NPAs are up against a 120,000-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines spread in all of six major commands.
In addition, the Philippine government has more than 120,000 police personnel of which some special forces units are often deployed against the communist rebels.
The AFP and the PNP are far more superior and better equipped than the rebel forces.
But the NPAs have proven to be resilient over the years, waging a Maoist-inspired guerrilla war since 1969 when it was founded on March 29.
Standing, or rather sitting in between, the two contending parties in the peace negotiating table is the Royal Norwegian Government who has been brokering the talks for over a decade already.
The RNG has in fact underwritten the cost of travel of the NDF consultants and the cost of hosting the talks in Norway.
It created a fast lane for the speedy issuance of visas to all delegation members from both panels.
Norwegian envoy Elizabeth Slattum lauded both panel and delegation members for creating the atmosphere and conducting themselves in a manner that bodes well for the peace process.
She said it was their first time to host a negotiation where contending parties are actually exchanging jokes and anecdotes and are seated together during meals.
They also share the same hotel.
In fact, both parties joined the city tour organized by the host country.
During the opening ceremonies of the talks, Foreign Minister Brende gave his assurance that the Norwegian government will continue to support and host the negotiations for as long as it will take before a negotiated political settlement is reached by both parties.
RNG Ambassador to the Philippines Erik Forner, who witnessed the signing of the agreements reached during the first round, said he was amazed by the conduct of the talks and is looking forward to a final peace settlement.
In a press conference in Davao City Sunday evening (September 18) upon the release of kidnapped Norwegian tourist Kjartan Sekkingstad, President Duterte thanked the Norwegian ambassador for offering to facilitate and providing ‘office’ for the peace talks in the Scandinavian country.(ALL PHOTOS BY EDWIN G. ESPEJO)