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By Tonyo Cruz

Tonyo Cruz

A day after government negotiators tried justifying the cancellation of the fifth round of peace talks with the Communists as due, among others, to dwindling public support to peacemaking, Tuguegarao Archbishop Sergio Utleg presided over a mass right at the venue of the talks in The Netherlands.

At the mass, Archbishop Utleg personally relayed a message to the negotiators from Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

Utleg said the bishops are counseling the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines “not to be afraid to take the bold steps that alone can bring peace.”

On the Protestant side, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines has long endorsed the resumption of the talks, even as a bishop of one of its member-churches was recently arrested and detained as he pursued his peace ministry.

News of the government’s decision not to participate in the fifth round of talks was met with surprise in Manila. Cause-oriented groups have been campaigning hard to promote the social and economic reforms supposedly on the agenda this time.

In fact, symposiums, workshops, exhibits, consultations and assemblies have been held nationwide and in Philippine diplomatic missions abroad regarding the status and direction of the talks. Representatives of both the government and the NDFP have graced many of these events.

Prior to this, the Duterte government and the NDFP had already agreed in principle on free land distribution as the core of a comprehensive agreement on social and economic reforms. The NDFP even invited then-Environment Secretary Gina Lopez to participate in the discussions, given her stance against Big Foreign-Led Mining.

Like others, I find it unfortunate that the government and its negotiators are trying to pin the blame on its counterparts for the breakdown of unilateral ceasefires, and the skirmishes, offensives, and counter-offensives eversince. Worse, some say the continued battles and NDFP practices such as revolutionary taxation in areas where they hold sway supposedly deny the basis for any talks.

It is a matter of public record that the government’s defense secretary declared an all-out war last February right at the Palace briefing room. It is naïveté for anybody to expect the NDFP’s armed wing not to defend itself and the NDFP’s territory.

Come to think of it, the flaring up of the armed conflict compels both parties to resume the negotiations. May labanan kaya kailangang usapan. Precisely because there’s a long-running, deeply rooted armed conflict that we must support the talks, and not cancel them.

The government and the NDFP signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in 1998 – after just six months of talks and even without any form of ceasefire.

This agreement provides for a Joint Monitoring Committee which could receive complaints on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. It would be a great step if the negotiators and their principals would reactivate the JMC and make it work as intended. It would benefit the victims of human rights violations and hold either side accountable.

Reactivating the JMC and implementing CARHRIHL would also show the sincerity of both sides in implementing the next three substantive agreements on social and economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and end of hostilities.

Back here at home, President Duterte has said he is open to forming a new military division for members of the New People’s Army, and the Bangsamoro armies MILF and MNLF as he presides over an offensive against the Maute Group in Marawi. Even as the NDFP has denounced Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao, it has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the government in defeating the Maute Group.

If that united front materializes on the basis of formal agreements between and among the government, NDFP, MILF, and MNLF, it would be an epic national achievement. I’m certain that such an formidable alliance could defeat not just Maute Group but also the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf. Martial law could be no longer needed – perhaps even in strife-torn Marawi. Maybe, the alliance would also take on other causes later, like defending our territory and sovereignty against foreign invasion and intervention.

There are many other possibilities.

For now, we must do everything in our power to convince the government to go back to the negotiating table.

Follow me on Twitter @tonyocruz

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