GRP, NDF agree to discuss bilateral ceasefire in Netherlands

ROME, Italy — The Government of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) have agreed to separately discuss the joint bilateral ceasefire when both negotiating panels meet in February in time for the depositing of identification documents of rebel leaders who are to be covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantee (JASIG) in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Unable to include the joint ceasefire agenda during the opening of the third round of talks here, the Philippine government (GRP) got the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) to finally table it for discussion after a formal submission and acceptance on the part of rebel negotiators.

The meeting for the bilateral ceasefire will be held in Utrecht, according to GRP chief peace negotiator and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.

This developed after the NDFP made a commitment to the GRP draft bilateral proposal, which they officially received on Tuesday afternoon during the fourth day of the peace negotiations in Rome, Italy.

NDFP chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili said they will study the draft government proposal and will submit their own draft.

“They received then they initialed the draft and they proposed that for discussion of our proposed draft, they will have to come back (in The Netherlands) on the 22nd or 24th of February,” Bello said.

He added that the meeting could last up to three days.

The government side immediately welcomed the development.

“The fact that they agreed to discuss it is a positive development of the (peace) process,” he said.

Bello said he is confident the commitment of the NDFP to the peace process will continue to hold the separate unilateral ceasefire declaration which the rebels have earlier hinted they are seriously considering to withdraw from.

“Otherwise, what’s the idea of discussing a bilateral ceasefire,” said Bello.

He added that the lifting of the unilateral ceasefire was never mentioned during the unscheduled meeting following the armed encounter in Makilala, North Cotabato that left one rebel dead.

Bello said the Makilala incident should push both panels to pursue a joint bilateral ceasefire in order to direct complaints on violations and prompt fact-finding and investigation by a third party monitor.

The ongoing unilateral ceasefire is the longest that the armed forces of both contending parties have maintained, now on its fifth month, in the history of the armed conflict between the government and the NDFP.

The government has been pushing for a more formal and secure bilateral ceasefire agreement to provide the atmosphere conducive to the peace negotiations.

A joint bilateral ceasefire can be reached and signed on or before the 4th round of negotiations set for April in Oslo, Norway, according to both panels.

Negotiating panels from both sides agreed to expand the agenda of the February special meeting after intense back channeling by panel members from both sides after the NDFP initially declined to include the bilateral ceasefire in the agenda of the third round of talks.

Bello and the rest of the panel are going to the Netherlands next month to witness the depositing of the names and proper identification of a sealed document that will contain the names of 87 NDFP leaders who will be immune from government arrests.

The new JASIG list was supposed to have already been deposited as early as October last year, but the NDFP said some technical problems bogged down the process.

NDFP chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili said it was compounded by the unavailability of the bishop who will act as custodian of the JASIG list.

The JASIG list contains the real identification of the NDFP consultants who have assumed names and aliases and are to be immune from government arrest.

Bello is the only panel member who will be given access to five random names in the JASIG verification list for verification before it is deposited in a safety deposit box of a still to be named bank in The Netherlands.

The list will only be opened by both parties if a listed NDFP member is captured by police and government security operatives.

The arrest of alleged JASIG covered NDF consultants have led to the collapse of previous talks between the GRP and the NDFP.