Rodrigo Duterte pitched his presidential legacy in part on a promise to end decades of conflict with the Communist Party of the Philippines. But, his recent suspension of peace talks is a big step backwards, Cleve Kevin Robert Arguelles writes.

Amid all the excitement that the peace talks with communist rebels in the Philippines were making greater headway than ever before, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has unilaterally suspended them.

This suspension came just a day after he declared the lifting of a military ceasefire in response to an earlier cancellation of the ceasefire on the side of the communists. Expressing his ‘sadness’ that the negotiations had stalled, the President said: “I tried my best, but I guess it wasn’t good enough… There will be no peace in this land vis-à-vis the Communist Party”. The collapse of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines’s (CPP) National Democratic Front (NDF) marked another foregone opportunity in ending Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency.

Since the transition to the post-authoritarian order in 1986, every administration has been beleaguered by the war against the communists. Duterte’s government is no different as he wagered his legacy on the prospect of peace, promising inclusive peace talks among different armed challengers to the state, including the communists who have been waging a revolution for almost 50 years already. But to a certain extent, Duterte’s promise of peace is an exception to the failed attempts for a peaceful settlement with the NDF under five previous presidents. His claims of being the first leftist president of the country, his past friendly relations with the revolutionary forces in his hometown of Davao City in the Southern Philippines, the appointment of several NDF nominees to his cabinet and his personal relationship with CPP founder Jose Maria Sison all created an atmosphere of high optimism and enthusiasm on the possibility of an immediate end to the conflict. This is why the breakdown of the peace talks caught many by surprise, with some within civil society remaining hopeful that the end of hostilities is not yet completely off the table.

Duterte would do well to look back and reflect on the gains and mistakes of the past three decades of the peace process to rescue his campaign promise of peace in our time.

The President declared that only a ‘compelling reason’ would bring him back to the negotiating table. The long history of this conflict points out that the social and economic consequences of a return to permanent war between government forces and the communist rebels are compelling enough. Perpetual violence is a horrifying prospect. Those in the countryside know this only too well. The protracted war has affected the lives of millions of Filipinos and claimed at least 40,000 casualties.

The prospects for success if the Philippine military returns to a strategy of all-out war against the communists, which Duterte’s predecessors have also adopted, are rather bleak. For years, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the CPP’s New People’s Army (NPA) have been in a mutually hurting stalemate. Neither side has been able to win a decisive military victory in the past decades. Worse, this only resulted in frequent civilian deaths and human rights violations on the ground. Under such conditions, the time to go back to the negotiating table is riper than ever.

The subject of a ceasefire has always been a thorny issue in previous talks. Duterte’s demand that bilateral ceasefires be used as a precondition to a peace negotiation appears to be reasonably attractive. But our experience in the peace process tells us that using a ceasefire as a precondition carries several risks. If either of the parties lacks a strong control over its ground forces, or if the ceasefire provides spoilers with a favourable opportunity to sabotage the process, it is better to wait for a more supportive climate.

While it is true that ceasefires can lessen the human costs of war in the immediate term, the key here is to understand that the time horizon of those who engage in the peace process is longer-term. In the Philippine experience and in other countries like Colombia, spoilers have been a crucial element in the breakdown of peace negotiations. In the meantime, informal and formal agreements on exercising restraint, even if partial and temporary, could be arranged to scale down the impact of the war on civilians while the peace talks are ongoing. Landmark agreements in the peace talks like the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law were signed without any protracted ceasefire.

Even if both parties reached formal arrangements to temporarily suspend hostilities, it is not surprising that there will be violations on the ground as both the AFP and NPA have alleged. It is expected that incitements and showdowns will challenge the peace process. In times of ongoing talks, accidental encounters can easily turn violent. Parties at the table must be ready to set aside these incidents and, if possible, neutralise them in advance. Participants to the process must keep their pledge to not leave the negotiating table, and to not fall hostage to small confrontations, until a final peace agreement is signed.

In times of crisis in the peace process, parties must also not give in to the temptation of engaging in a toxic propaganda war against each other. The President recently labelled the other party to the process as a ‘terrorist group’. Such verbal assaults undermine public support for the talks and will make it harder for parties to draw the attention back to the negotiating table.

The lesson here is that peace talks are inherently messy. After all, it is an attempt to forge peace in times of war. Building durable peace not only takes time but also requires lyrical tenacity and enduring patience. The litmus test of the commitment of the government and the NDF to a lasting peace is whether they can work through this process despite its messiness.

History tells us that successful peace talks will not automatically resolve many of the widespread social problems that the country faces. However, it is clear that an end to the armed conflict is a necessary condition, with the peace talks also becoming an important space for parties and the public to deliberate on key issues. The peace talks may be a long and complex process, but they are essential if peace is to be attained. Duterte said it himself; ‘we cannot build a nation over the dead bodies of our own citizens’.

Cleve Kevin Robert V Arguelles is an Instructor (on leave) and former Chair of the Political Science Program at the University of the Philippines Manila.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.