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Peacebuilding piece by piece

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Philippines has announced that more than a thousand children who were recruited as “child warriors” by Muslim secessionist rebels in Mindanao are set to be freed starting tomorrow. The UNICEF disclosed the first batch from at least 1,782 “child warriors” who will be released were identified as affiliated with the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).

The BIAF is the armed wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The UNICEF-organized rites will be held in Camp Darapanan where the MILF’s central headquarters is located in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

According to the UNICEF, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Jesus Dureza is expected to witness the first batch of so-called “child warriors” to be initially turned over to the Philippine government and their eventual return to their respective families.

However, Dureza failed to mention about this event when he attended our weekly breakfast forum at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday. What Dureza announced to us is the scheduled shoot fest competition to be held tomorrow at the shooting range of the 6th Infantry Division in North Cotabato. According to him, the “friendly” shooting competition is a post-Valentine activity organized by his Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).

The shoot fest will be participated in by members of the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), along with officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), and members of local media in Mindanao. “It’s a shoot for peace. You will see all of us there with a gun tacked on our sides,” quipped Dureza who professed to be a precision shooting aficionado.

Dureza remains optimistic of finding the elusive peace formula that could finally end the long pestering internal strife in our homeland. Toward this goal, Dureza is not one to lose hope to turn into reality the nation’s dreams to achieve a just and lasting, if not enduring peace during this lifetime.

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Sa tamang panahon, may forever. Kung ang love may forever, ang peace may forever,” Dureza waxed some popular lines. Levity aside, he declared his hopes: “There will be enduring and lasting peace.”

As the OPAPP head, Dureza exercises oversight functions in all of the government’s peace negotiations with the communist insurgents’ groups and with the various factions of the Muslim secessionists’ fronts. Appearing as our featured guest this week at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Dureza updated us on the latest status of the government’s peace negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) here and abroad. And also, the government’s separate peace negotiations with both the MILF and the MNLF.

And lately, Dureza disclosed, he re-opened talks with the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) to help them gain autonomy for the indigenous people of the Cordillera provinces. After all, Dureza cited, autonomous governments for both the Cordillera and the Muslim Mindanao were enshrined in the country’s 1987 Constitution.

Six provinces in Northern Luzon were supposed to be included in the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR), namely Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Mountain Province. Baguio City, known as the summer capital of the Philippines, was supposed to become the regional center of CAR.

Citing the CPLA split from the CPP-NPA, Dureza justified reviving talks for the Cordillera autonomy to help the indigenous peoples of Cordillera realize their dream of having their own autonomous regional government. Previous attempts to establish the Cordillera autonomous government failed after it was twice rejected in two plebiscites conducted one after the other.

But isn’t it opening up old wounds in reviving such settled issue of Cordillera autonomy? To which Dureza argued, there is no healing of wounds up to now.

Dureza expressed though his confidence all is not lost yet in the government’s attempt to forge a peace agreement with the CPP-NPA-NDF despite the ceasefire setback. He echoed such optimism even after President Rodrigo Duterte decided to terminate – for now – the ongoing peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF.

The latest alleged ceasefire violations by the communist insurgents, the last straw of which, as we say, was the killing of three soldiers in Bukidnon by suspected NPA rebels. It took place a few days before the unilateral truce was abruptly lifted by the NPA over reported ceasefire violations by the military.

The three soldiers were unarmed and in civilian clothes when abducted by armed men believed to be NPA rebels operating in the province. What made the matters worse was the recovery of the bodies of the slain soldiers who all bore more than 20 gunshots wounds for each of them. The atrocity of their killing prompted President Duterte to order the government peace panel to terminate further talks just a few days after they just returned from Rome, Italy where the latest round of negotiations with the Utrecth-based CPP-NPA-NDF leaders were held under the auspices of the Norwegian government.

It’s hard enough to navigate the treacherous path to peace, Dureza laments, but they also have to deal with the usual humps and bumps along the way. Given the realities on the ground, the paths to peace really face a lot of challenge. The presidential peace process adviser concedes the unexpected turn of events at times causes unwarranted breakdown of negotiations.

This we have seen from the recent “termination” of the peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDF under the Duterte administration.

Dureza though clings to the latest pronouncement of President Duterte if there would be “compelling reasons,” he would agree to resume the peace negotiations of the government with them. He, however, refused to speculate what would constitute “compelling reasons” for President Duterte to restart the peace talks with the Reds.

Dureza could only sigh the peacebuilding efforts must always be patiently undertaken. Even if the peace-building efforts, he further groaned, have to be done on piece by piece basis.

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