By Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza
Vice President Sara Duterte’s criticism that reopening peace talks with communist rebels is like “an agreement with the devil” marks her first public rebuttal of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and is a sign of a rift between the two, an analyst said.
Duterte, whose father, former President Rodrigo Duterte, broke off peace negotiations with the communists six years ago, on Monday stated her opposition to last week’s announcement of an agreement to reboot talks with the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
After the two sides took part in a confidential meeting in Oslo facilitated by the Norwegian government, they committed themselves to restarting talks seeking an end to Asia’s longest-running insurgency, which began in 1969.
“Mr. President, the government’s statement with the NDFP in Oslo was an agreement with the devil,” she said, using an acronym for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the communist party’s political wing.
“Mr. President, we can negotiate for peace and reconciliation and pursue meaningful development efforts in the Philippines without capitulating to the enemies.”
As she addressed the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, Duterte, the vice president who also serves as the Philippine education secretary, also challenged Marcos’ efforts to grant pardons to captured CPP members.
The agreement in Oslo, reached on Nov. 23, called for establishing a framework to resume talks that were cancelled in 2017 by then-President Rodrigo Duterte. He had accused communist rebels of insincerity for carrying out attacks despite a ceasefire and went on to blacklist the CPP and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), as terrorist organizations.
Analysts had been anticipating that the “rift” between President Marcos and his VP would surface publicly, but not this soon, said Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department at Ateneo de Davao University in southern Davao city, the Dutertes’ home base.
“For me it’s only a matter of formality. At some point there will be divergence within the Team Unity group, knowing there are people that have different perspectives and interests,” he told BenarNews.
Beleno was referring to the Marcos-Duterte “unity” alliance that blew away opposition candidates in the 2022 presidential polls. In the months leading up to the vote, Sara Duterte led all popularity surveys before deciding to run as Marcos’ running mate instead.
In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately under the Constitution to help keep the balance of power.
During his term in office, the elder Duterte and his then-vice president, Leni Robredo, often clashed. Robredo criticized his drug war and he told her that she was not qualified ahead of her own announcement that she was running for president in 2022.
Analysts said tensions between Marcos and his vice president deteriorated with the Marcos administration’s decision last month to free on bail Leila de Lima, a former senator and justice secretary who had been calling for Rodrigo Duterte to be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Marcos also reversed his predecessor’s pro-China policy and returned to the embrace of the United States, the Philippines’ traditional ally.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Marcos said the president had contracted the coronavirus and would not comment on the remarks by Sara Duterte about the peace talks.
‘A lack of understanding’
The House of Representatives, where Marcos’ son and a cousin sit as powerful members, meanwhile has launched an investigation into huge budget allocations for the education department under Sara Duterte’s leadership.
House member France Castro, an educator who serves in congress, said Sara Duterte’s remarks were “alarming” and detrimental to the pursuit of peace.
“These statements reflect a lack of understanding of the complexities of the peace process and disregard for the aspiration of the Filipino people for just and lasting peace,” she said.
Sara Duterte’s remarks also undermine the presidency of Marcos along with efforts to address the roots of the long-running insurgency, she said.
During her Monday speech, Sara Duterte called on Marcos to increase funding to strengthen the anti-commubist task force, which her father had established in 2018 to implement his government’s strategy to end the insurgency. Its main stated purpose is to implement economic programs and offer amnesty to guerrillas, but it has backed continued military operations against the CPP-NPA.
On Tuesday, armed forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said troops would not lay down their firearms unless directly ordered by the commander-in-chief.
“I cannot blame the vice president for saying this. In fact this opinion is shared by many in the country, even soldiers,” Brawner told reporters.
Still, he said, the resumption of peace talks could have a positive outcome.
“We believe that the joint statement made is really moving toward lasting peace. … I believe this could lead to lasting peace because first of all they said there will be no preconditions, there will be no ceasefire, there will be no release of political prisoners,” Brawner said.
“These are exploratory talks, but in the meantime, we in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, I told all our troops, to continue our operations.”