OPAPP denies gov’t leaving peace talks with NDF

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/07 Oct.) — An official of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace Process (OPAPP) took exception to a report that said the government was no longer keen on pursuing formal peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF).

The 38-page report, titled “Living in the Shadows: Displaced Lumads Locked in a Cycle of Poverty” and was released on Friday at the Apo View Hotel by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). It described the situation of the Lumads in Eastern Mindanao in the context of the armed conflict between the government and the New People’s Army (NPA), armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

IDMC mainly based the report on the research made by the Balay Rehabilitation Center, a humanitarian organization based in Davao City.

Frederik Kok, senior country analyst of the Swiss-based IDMC-NRC read the summary of the report.

“Indigenous people in the Philippines are caught in the middle of the conflict between the military and the New People’s Army and could hardly cope with their repeated dislocations and the accumulated effects of property loss or damage and income decline,” the report said.

The IDMC, established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), is an international body monitoring internal displacements worldwide.

Jennifer Santiago Oreta, OPAPP assistant secretary reacted to the part of the report which said the government was no longer interested in resolving the conflict through formal peace talks.

Oreta was one of the panelists during the launching of the report.

“It is not true that the government is not willing to resume peace talks as reported here on page 12 paragraph 2. The fact that we still have a peace panel, the government is very much committed to pursue the peace talks. However, there are major huddles that we cannot seem to surpass,” she said.

She, however, admitted that in some of their consultations with Lumads the latter said they could not see the immediate effects [of the talks] in their communities.

“Some of the immediate feedbacks said that we need to make the peace talks relevant on the ground. It needs to be very concrete. Some of it says we need to reduce the violence on the ground. If we cannot agree on the socio-economic reforms or political constitutional reforms, can you at least talk about reducing the violence,” she said.

Oreta said government is trying to find a time-bound, agenda-based framework “so that we can agree on something and implement something under the Aquino administration.”

She noted that after over 20 years of trying to achieve peace with the CPP-NPA-NDF, negotiations have again come to another prolonged impasse.

She blamed the impasse on the insistence of the NDF for the release of some of its detained “peace consultants”.

During the February 11 meeting in The Netherlands, the two parties agreed to accelerate the talks in 18 months, she said.

She said the NDF insisted on the release of their officials before starting talks on social and economic reforms.

The NDF has always maintained that a number of the detained NDF personalities are “peace consultants” who are covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG).

Oreta said the government will abide by the JASIG but will invoke its right to verify as provided under the agreement.

She said the JASIG requires the NDF to submit the names and photos of its consultants and put these in an envelope which shall be placed in a safety deposit box.

She added the NDF wanted it that way for the security of the consultants.

When it was opened, however, the envelope only contained a diskette which supposedly had the names of the consultants but could not be decrypted, she said.

Oreta said the “failure of verification” has caused the talks to hit a snag.

In a conference in Cagayan de Oro City last June 27, leaders of various Christian churches in Mindanao said Lumads are hardest hit by the armed conflict in the island.

In the same conference, Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, former member of the government technical working group on social and economic reforms in talks with the NDF, said the plight of the Lumads can be addressed by making the environment a framework for peace and development.

Alejo noted that the Lumads are locked up in all types of conflict in the island, from those involving the NPA and Moro rebel groups as well as in resource-based conflicts due to ancestral domain claims and the expansion of plantations.

The government and the NDF peace panels are supposed to tackle social and economic reforms, the second in the 4-point substantive agenda of the talks as agreed under The Hague Joint Declaration signed in 1993.

The two other items are electoral and political reforms and disposition of forces.

The two parties signed the JASIG in February 1995, and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, the first item in the substantive agenda, in March 1998. (Roel N. Catoto/MindaNews)