Philippines' Duterte Declares Truce With Communist Rebels So People Can 'Enjoy Christmas'

The Philippines' President has declared a unilateral ceasefire with The New People's Army (NPA) communist rebels over Christmas in spite of recommendations by the country's Department of National Defense not to do so.

On Wednesday (December 20), President Rodrigo Duterte announced, through his spokesperson, a truce between December 24 and January 2 to allow people to freely travel in the country and enjoy the festivities.

His announcement came just weeks after he ended peace talks with the militants and said he would label them as terrorists, claiming that violence had continued throughout negotiations.

His decision was condemned by the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political arm of the Maoist guerrillas, which said the militants had no choice but to re-start warfare in the countryside, according to Reuters.

Although Duterte called on the militants to reciprocate the gesture, the Maoist rebels have not yet commented on the ceasefire.

Earlier this week, the president was still undecided on whether to declare a truce, but he said he was worried about public safety.

"They might say there's no cease fire, a gun battle erupts, then you put a lot of strain on the people," he told reporters after attending the vigil of a police officer, who was shot dead by a drug suspect, AP reported.

"A lot of people are going around, even at night, enjoying Christmas day or whatever, going to church."

Security analyst and counter-terrorism expert David Otto believes that Duterte's declaration is similar to previous truces agreed by both sides over the Christmas period.

"Duterte's reluctant proposal of a ceasefire is a cat-and-mouse strategy that has worked for both sides over the years to allow festive celebrations," Otto told Newsweek.

"This extension of truce could backfire if the NPA refuses to reciprocate, and may take this as a point of weakness and strike against civilian and military targets."

Communist rebels Philippines
Philippine soldiers Private First Class Samuel Garay (centre L) and Sgt Solaiman Calocop (centre R) are guarded by members of the New Peoples Army guerillas, the armed wing of the Maoist rebels. President Duterte announced a unilateral truce between December 24 and January 2 to allow people to freely travel in the country and enjoy the festivities. MANMAN DEJETO/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict between the government and the communist rebels, estimated to number around 3,000, has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths since 1969.

Talks have been intermittent since 1986. Duterte raised new hopes that a solution to the conflict could be reached when he resumed talks, brokered by Norway, last August. He also freed some rebel leaders in order to advance a dialogue with the militants.

However, in November, he signed a document ending the talks and called on the freed rebel leaders to turn themselves in. "Let it not be said that I did not try to reach out to them," he said at the time.

"The downside of short term truces that do not lead to further talks is that non-state groups use that quiet time to rethink their strategy, rearm and even recruit new fighters," Otto said.

"Their strength lies in their ability to be unpredictable, hence their survival for nearly five decades. This is not a movement that can vanish without some sort of genuine sacrifice from both sides."

Terrorism and militancy in the Philippines

If a court in the country approves a legal process to proscribe the communist militants, it would be the second group to be declared a terrorist organization in the country, after the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), AP said.

The Islamist outfit, affiliated to the Islamic State (ISIS) group, fights to create a separate Islamic state in the Roman Catholic-majority Philippines. It is known for carrying out kidnappings for ransom and attacks against both civilians and the army.

Although the size of the group is estimated to be of between 200 and 400 members, ASG has been dubbed as one of the most violent groups in the area.

Earlier this year, government troops engaged in a months-long battle with ASG and Maute militants in the besieged town of Marawi. Insurgents had seized the town in May after a failed raid to capture ASG leader, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon. The siege ended in October.

"If the military strategy has not worked in favour of the people of Philippines to resolve the conflict with the NPA over all these years, it is time for Duterte to consider a long term political solution to the NPA crisis, especially at a time when returning foreign fighters from ISIS are finding the region of Mindanao and Marawi conducive for jihad," Otto concluded.