President Rodrigo Duterte withdrew a unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels on Saturday July 30, with peace remaining tenuous in the southern Philippines. Duterte had announced the truce just days earlier, however, moved to end the ceasefire following an attack in the southern province of Davao del Norte by the rebels.
The attack, which left one government militia member dead and four wounded, led Duterte to give the Maoists an ultimatum to explain the incident and to reciprocate the ceasefire. When this lapsed without a declaration from the rebels, Duterte announced that he was “hereby ordering the immediate lifting of the ceasefire”, and ordered “all security forces to be on high alert and continue to discharge their normal functions to neutralize all threats to national security.” A regional spokesman for the communists armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), also said on Saturday that the government ceasefire in the southern region of Mindanao was “spurious” because security forces were still conducting combat operations.
Since his inauguration on June 30, Duterte has made pursuing peace with the Maoist insurgency a key priority, seeking to end one of Asia’s longest running guerrilla wars, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1960s. Indeed, Duterte has said it is his “dream” to create a lasting peace with the rebels, but was unwilling to continue the ceasefire without a show of “good faith” from the group. However, exiled rebel leader Jose Maria Sison said the communists were set to declare a ceasefire on Saturday evening and accused Duterte of “volatility” and a “lack of prudence” in dealing with something “as sensitive and delicate as peace negotiations between two armed fighting sides.”
The southern Philippines has a long history of conflict, with armed groups, quasi-jihadist militias and Muslim separatists all active in the area. However, it is the communist insurgency that has been the deadliest over the years, with local reports putting the fatality count at at least 40,000. The violence peaked in the 1980s, when the NPA had around 26,000 active members, whilst now it is believed to have fewer than 4,000 gunmen. Despite its reduction in numbers, the group retains support among the deeply poor rural communities, who support the Maoist’s goal to overthrow the Philippine government using guerrilla-style warfare. Sporadic attacks on security forces are common, often ending in casualties for both sides.
Despite the cancellation of the ceasefire, however, all hope is not lost in achieving peace. Indeed, both the communists and Duterte have indicated that they are still interested in pushing through with the resumption of peace talks in August. Despite his criticism of Duterte, Sison said that the communists were willing to address “any miscommunication and improve the situation”. The two sides held preliminary talks in June, mediated by the Norwegian government. Whether these talks can lead to real change on the ground remains to be seen. A greater commitment to peace will be required from both sides, and the ability of Duterte to address the root causes of the conflict, including entrenched inequality will be crucial. For now, Philippine peace is a fragile concept.