DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 28 Sep) – The first thing he would tell Ka Oris, if per chance they will meet, is for them to go home to their respective families and enjoy Christmas.
“Siguro, uwi muna tayo sa mga pamilya natin (Let us go home to our family first),” Lt. Gen. Leonardo Guerrero said in an interview minutes after he led military officers in a closed door briefing with members of the government peace negotiating panel Tuesday at the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom) headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Panacan here.
Lt. Gen. Guerrero heads the biggest of six unified commands of the AFP, which in turn is facing the largest concentration of communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) rebels.
The commanding general’s short and poignant wish for a quiet and peaceful Christmas now that the prospect of a more permanent ceasefire looms brighter is also sinking into the minds of those who have been fighting the communist rebels for most of their lives as government soldiers.
“Second to a (Sen. Emmanuel) Pacquiao fight, Christmas is the most anticipated period in the lives of our foot soldiers,” the general said.
Previous administrations have been declaring limited ceasefires during Christmas seasons.
The NPA rebels, in turn, have also told its troops to stop military offensives during Christmas.
Still, there were several reports of violent clashes despite their respective unilateral ceasefire declarations.
With both the government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDFP) declaring separate unilateral and indefinite ceasefires last month in time for the formal resumption of the peace negotiations between two warring parties, there have been no reports of armed clashes and violent incidents ever since.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, chair of the government negotiating panel, earlier said the ceasefire continues to hold.
But he said both parties are looking forward to the more permanent bilateral ceasefire agreement when the peace talks are resumed next week in Oslo, Norway.
Lt. Gen. Guerrero said a formal ceasefire agreement with the NDF, the political umbrella of the Communist Party of Philippines (CPP) and the NPA, is welcome respite for his troops who are always in the war footing.
“This will give us the opportunity to have some sort of break in the hostilities, from the fighting, and be able to concentrate on our development activities,” he explained.
A bilateral ceasefire in place will also give them the “opportunity to train some more, fill up the gaps on our capabilities” and fulfill recent orders to support law enforcement in the fight against crime and illegal drugs.
Despite apprehensions from some ground commanders, the general sees bright prospects for a just and lasting peace under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
It helps, he says, that the president enjoys the support of the majority of the Filipinos.
“Our president enjoys the support of the majority of the people. The thrust of our president is to make our government inclusive – people from different leanings and beliefs – magsama-sama na tayo (let us join together),” he added.
GRP panel member Hernani Braganza said he understands the wariness of some officers on the ground.
“Siyempre, they (communist rebels) have been our enemies. I know at the back of your minds there are those lingering thoughts,” he told the military officers.
But he also exhorted them to “give peace a chance.”
“Now is our best chance to strike a negotiated political settlement with the communist rebels,” he later said in the sidelines.
Lt. Gen. Guerrero said they are in full support to the peace initiatives of President Duterte.
But he also said the rebels will have to prove their commitment to peace.
“The challenge is to prove sincerity on the part of the other side to really commit to the peace process and to abide by the provisions of the peace (and future) agreements,” he stressed.
Nevertheless the general called to the troops to rally behind the President.
“Sa mga tropa, let us support the President and the peace process,” Guerrero in turn exhorted his troops.
He added that the president has shown full support to the military and individual soldiers.
President Duterte has been making rounds in military camps, urging soldiers to support the peace process and promising to upgrade the combat capabilities of the military and doubling their salaries.
“My task as president is not to wage war but to make peace,” he has repeatedly told the military.
Five decades of war
The CPP-NPA-NDF has been waging a Maoist-inspired guerrilla war in the countryside for close to half a century, making it the longest active insurgency in Asia.
Several attempts on striking a peace settlement with the communist rebels have bogged down over substantive issues and arrests of ranking rebel leaders.
Peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA-NDF were first held in 1986, under the then revolutionary government of President Corazon Aquino following the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos.
But the talks immediately collapsed in January 1987 after government troops and policemen fired at farmers demanding land reform at the foot of the historic Mendiola Bridge.
The last formal negotiations under President Benigno Aquino III ended in 2011 following the series of arrests of several NDF consultants.
But following the election of President Duterte, peace negotiations were resumed with both parties agreeing to six agenda in the first round of formal talks in August also held in Norway, under the new administration.
The CPP-NPA-NDF claims it is operating in 71 provinces with over 120 guerilla fronts and an armed strength of 10,000 regulars.
But the military said the NPA rebels are now down to less than 4,000 nationwide with 45 percent of their regulars heavily concentrated in the eastern side of Mindanao.
Members of the GRP panel are confident a bilateral ceasefire agreement will be signed during the second round of Oslo talks already slated for next week.
It would only be the first time since 1986 when both parties will agree to a bilateral ceasefire, raising the prospect of many of the combatants from both sides being able to go home and join their families.
Maybe before the Christmas eve, Ka Oris a.k.a. Jorge Madlos, and Lt. Gen. Guerrero will have the chance to meet for the first time, shake hands and give each other a brotherly hug.
Both are grizzled veterans of the war that has claimed the lives of over 75,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Many may as well wish it would be a lasting, peaceful and quiet Christmas. (Edwin G. Espejo / OPAPP)