How peace talks with communist rebels failed

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 29) — One step forward, two steps back.

That about sums up how peace talks between the government and communist rebels went in 2017.  The whole process collapsed in November as President Rodrigo Duterte turned his back on the Left.

Duterte, a self-described left-leaning leader, brought renewed hope for ending the decades-old communist insurgency.  He reached out to the rebels even before assuming the presidency in July 2016, and offered four Cabinet posts to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) as a sign of friendship and goodwill.

CPP founder Jose Maria Sison praised Duterte for his commitment to find a solution to the armed conflict which has been going on for 48 years, the longest-running in Asia.

But the "honeymoon phase" was soon over, just more than a year into the Duterte presidency, said Dennis Quilala, a professor at University of the Philippines specializing in the peace process.

Quilala told CNN Philippines there is no surefire answer to what went wrong as the government and rebels have opposing claims, blaming each other.

This year saw "both camps at a very early stage losing trust when it comes to the peaceful way of resolving the conflict," he noted. 

Here's a look back at the events that led to the termination of peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF), which represented the rebels in the talks.

January: A good month

The government and the rebels welcomed 2017 with the third round of peace talks in Rome, Italy.

Both sides agreed to a change in venue to avoid the freezing temperatures of Oslo, Norway. The Norwegian government has been serving as third-party facilitator in the talks since the 1990s.

The Duterte administration then said it was pushing to remove the CPP from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations so Sison could come home and participate in the talks.

Related: PH to ask U.S. to remove Sison from terror list

'No more peace talks'

In contrast, February began on a sour note with the CPP's armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), announcing an end to its five-month old unilateral ceasefire effective February 10.

Two days later, the government followed suit.

Both sides accused each other of launching attacks against the other in violation of the ceasefire.

On February 4, Duterte withdrew from the talks, and for the first time called the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization.

He lamented the killing of three soldiers in encounters in Bukidnon on February 1. The soldiers, who were unarmed and not in uniform at that time, each sustained at least 24 gunshot wounds, the military said.

"Why do you kill a government soldier 73 times? Anong tingin mo sa sundalo? Aso? [What do you think of soldiers? Dogs?"]," Duterte said in a February 5 interview, letting out curses.

He also ordered the arrest of all NDF consultants who had been released on bail to participate in the negotiations.

The government told rebels it was terminating the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees, a 1995 agreement allowing NDF consultants to move freely in the country to participate in the talks without fear of being arrested.

It was the signal for the Armed Forces to again wage an "all-out war" against the NPA.

Elusive ceasefire deal

Still, formal negotiations resumed in April -- only to break down again in May.

The fourth round of peace talks resulted in the signing of an agreement on an interim joint ceasefire, which was supposed to take effect upon the approval and signing of the ground rules.

This never happened.

On May 27, the government declined to proceed with the fifth round of talks, initially set from that day to June 1.

Duterte in July said he had had enough and would no longer allow government negotiators to sit across the peace table with the NDF.

"Ayaw ko nang makipag-usap sa kanila. Marami na akong sundalo na pinatay nila. Marami na akong pulis na pinatay nila," he said in a visit to Marawi, which was then under attack by the ISIS-inspired Maute group.

[Translation: I do not want to talk to them anymore. They killed many of my soldiers and policemen.]

A word war ensued, with Duterte saying Sison was dying of colon cancer and Sison calling the President "the No. 1 drug addict in the Philippines." The NDF said Sison was in good health.

In September, Duterte offered to return to the negotiating table, but only if the rebels declared a ceasefire. The CPP rejected Duterte's demand, calling it unacceptable.

The following month, Duterte told the rebels to "kindly stop" the killings, promising jobs to NPA fighters who would surrender to the government.

The military later said more than 700 rebels heeded Duterte's call, even as the CPP claimed its members would not surrender as they are "united under its central leadership."

Impending terror tag

Duterte issued Proclamation 360 on November 23, ending the on-off negotiations with communist rebels. It was the first time in 18 years that peace talks had been terminated.

The government cited a rash of violent attacks by the NPA as reason behind the President's decision.

Duterte issued another proclamation on December 5, this time declaring the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization. The NPA's designation as a terrorist group will be official once approved by a regional trial court, according to the Human Security Act of 2007.

Is there still hope?

And then an unexpected twist.

After ending the negotiations and calling members of CPP-NPA terrorists, Duterte hinted, there might still be hope.

He said the government peace panel "can always resuscitate (the talks) at some other time."

Quilala said it is normal for peace negotiations to start well at the beginning of an administration, and then later get "bogged down by demands."

"This administration I think is also quite different because they made a lot of concessions just to make sure that there will be progress in the talks," he said.

The terror tag could mean a dead end on negotiations with the Left for the government whose policy is to not talk to terrorists. But it would take time before the court approves the NPA's terrorist designation so, according to Quilala, anything can still happen.

He said the government and the Left still have over four years under the Duterte administration to strike a peace agreement.