Government chief peace negotiator Franklin Quijano said the agreement means that guns will be silent in villages controlled by the Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa ng Mindanao (RPM-M) in six provinces in Mindanao, namely, Lanao del Norte, Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur and the newly created Shariff Kabunsuan.
"We can say the people in these villages can peacefully celebrate Christmas. This is historic. Peace is still possible in Mindanao," Quijano said during ceremonies held at the Pryce Plaza Hotel here this afternoon.
Quijano signed the seven-page document detailing "The Guidelines and Ground Rules For the Implementation and Monitoring of the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities" on behalf of the Philippine government.
Four rebel representatives – chief negotiator Moniva Pascual, Frederick Montes, Armando Orbis, and political consultant Ike de los Reyes – signed for the RPM-M which military estimates to have at least 1,000 armed partisans and guerillas operating in Iligan City and the six provinces.
"We do not need a minute but a lifetime of peace. We know its difficulties but we are willing to make the sacrifice," De los Reyes said.
The agreement came after a series of negotiations that started since 2003. The rebels had insisted that the government conduct consultations in a few hundred villages in the six provinces. Government negotiators said they have finished consultations in 93 villages and will conduct another 100 next year.
"We want the government to validate what we have earlier found that these villages are living in extreme poverty. The reason we seek peace is because it will be immoral to wage war if our people are suffering from extreme poverty," Orbis said.
The agreement on the ground rules of the ceasefire calls for the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the rebels to stop hostile actions, attacks, raids, landmine use, spying, and deployment of forces against each other.
Harassment, intimidation, extortion, arrest without warrants, blatant display of firearms, illegal detention and providing sanctuary to criminal elements are also not permitted.
The agreement also calls for the establishment of local coordinating and monitoring teams in areas identified by the Philippine government and the rebels. Each team shall be composed of representatives from the government, military, rebels and non-government organizations.
The RPM-M broke away from the mainstream Communist Party of the Philippines in the 1990s over ideological differences. De los Reyes said that in 1991, a revolutionary court of the New People's Army sentenced him and several other key communist cadres to death.
NPA hit squads have successfully carried out the death sentence against Rolly Kintanar, Popoy Lagman and other prominent former communist cadres.
De los Reyes said this is the reason why they are not free to divulge the real strength and scope of their influence. He said the threat from their former comrades is still real.
Maj. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, commanding general of the 1st Army Division, said he understands the need of secrecy by the rebels.
"The communist party led by Jose Maria Sison has a violent history against its former comrades who want to break away from them. They will kill these people if given the opportunity," Ferrer said.
He said that under his area of responsibility, the rebels have a force operating in five towns bordering Lanao del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur.
Ferrer, who is known for his peace building efforts since his previous Basilan tour of duty, said he supports the peace process.
Maj. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito of the 6th Infantry Division said he will send his men to
validate RPM-M's claims that they have a sizable force in Upi town, Shariff Kabunsuan province. (Shariff Kabunsuan was carved out of Maguindanao).
"I do not want to deal with a ghost army. I want to know their leaders, where they operate," he said.
Pajarito said not knowing where the group operates will complicate matters in the future. "They can say it is one of their members we arrested for illegal possession of firearms. They can claim anyone as their member." he said.
Senior Supt. Rogelio Nuneza, of the Philippine National Police in Northern Mindanao, said the group is responsible for several ambuscades and attacks against government soldiers in the past. He said the group has a lot of armed partisans operating in the cities
agitating workers to go on strike.
"If they want peace, we can say a major threat has been removed," Nuneza added.