Conversations with the MILF and NDFP, or movements in rigidity
It turned out to be positive that Aquino resumed direct talks and negotiations with the political underground alliance of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) in Oslo, Norway, and consultations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Malaysia’s capital in the first year of office after a long radio silence Kuala Lumpur continued. With the presentable result that on March 27, 2014 a peace treaty settlement in the form of the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” (CAB)could be negotiated. But just ten months later, the high expectations of finally establishing peace in the oldest conflict region in Southeast Asia were bitterly disappointed. A disastrous commando operation in the early morning hours of January 25, 2015 in the town of Mamasapano in the southern province of Maguindanao claimed 64 deaths – 44 members of the police, 17 members of the MILF and at least three civilians. This incident caused such a stir and the domestic political debate that the heart of the entire peace process, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was not passed, contrary to the original timetable. Worse still: Since the beginning of 2016 it has been clear that the BBL in its original form no longer has any chance ever to be realized. Bitter disappointment, anger and frustration could therefore also be heard everywhere during the election campaign in spring 2016. Many people wondered why a negotiation marathon for more than 18 years did not produce a presentable result.
The dialogue with the NDFP stalled again. The main point of contention was the question of how the previously agreed immunity guarantees for the negotiators on both sides are concretely interpreted. According to ehistorylib, the NDFP leadership accused Manila of illegally preventing over a dozen consultants from doing their jobs or of keeping them detained on flimsy accusations. The fronts solidified when, on March 22, 2014, two high-ranking CPP / NPA cadres, Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma Austria, were captured about 60 kilometers southwest of Cebu City – just one week before the 45th birthday of the NPA.
Since summer 2016, however, the thread of conversation between the two parties has been tied again. Preliminary talks on the formal resumption of the peace negotiations as well as a first official round of talks have already taken place again under the aegis of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo. The new government under Rodrigo R. Duterte has signaled that it is seriously interested in a settlement of this longstanding conflict and is considering the release of (almost) all political prisoners as a gesture of “goodwill”. Duterte released 19 NDFP consultants on bail and even allowed them to participate in the Oslo talks. One reason for this (at least temporary) de-escalation is probably that the CPP’s founding chairman and chief political advisor to the NDFP, José Maria Sison, who lived in exile in Utrecht, the Netherlands for many years, was Duterte’s teacher in the early 1960’s. The next round of negotiations in Oslo took place in the first half of October 2016 and was primarily devoted to economic, social, political and constitutional issues. The third official round of negotiations took place in Rome in January 2017. The initial euphoria on both sides was completely gone in February when both sides accused each other of violating unilaterally declared ceasefire agreements. On February 7, 2017, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called an “uncompromising war” against the communist fighters in the country, after the Armistice agreements were suddenly repealed.
In March 2017, thanks to intensive crisis management behind the scenes, it was still possible to agree in Utrecht, the Netherlands, to hold the fourth and fifth official round of talks in the Dutch seaside resort of Nordwijk aan Zee in the first week of April and in June. However, the fifth round of negotiations, which was ultimately scheduled for the end of May 2017, failed: The government side demanded a “more relaxed atmosphere for discussion” and a binding ceasefire, while the other side rejected this sequence. Instead, the NDFP emissaries wanted substantial reforms to be initiated before a ceasefire and also criticized the martial law on Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, which was imposed by presidential proclamation 216 on May 23 for an initial period of 60 days. Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups had come to open fighting in Marawi City, central Mindanao. According to the Congress resolution, martial law remained in place until the end of December 2019.