President Rodrigo Duterte arriving at a police camp in Manila Dec. 20 before he declared a Christmas truce with communist rebels. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a Christmas ceasefire with communist rebels, days after he categorically said that he is not suspending military offensives against the guerrillas during the holidays.
A presidential palace statement on Dec. 17, said declaring a truce with the rebels "is not in the nation's best interest as it would only expose our defenders to enemy attacks and embolden them to commit more atrocities."
After three days, on Dec. 20, Duterte changed his mind. In a statement, he said a unilateral ceasefire "would lessen the apprehension of the public this Christmas season."
The president said he expect the Communist Party of the Philippines, its armed wing the New People's Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines to "do a similar gesture of goodwill.
The government's "suspension of military operations" will start on Dec. 24 and will last until Jan. 2 next year.
"Christmas holds a special place in the hearts of our countrymen," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, adding that Filipinos should "stand together as one nation and aspire for peace in our beloved Philippines."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he did not recommend a ceasefire with the rebels, although he said the defense and military establishments "respects the decision of the president."
When asked by the media about his reaction to the president's declaration, the Defense chief said he was not aware of any ceasefire. "Did he declare? Where did he say it?" he asked reporters.
When told that the presidential palace announced it earlier in the day, Lorenzana said: "Is that it? Well, we will follow the directive of the president if that's the case."
Priests, bishops welcome truce
Catholic church leaders around the country welcomed the president's announcement, describing it as "a welcome development."
Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo of Kidapawan in Mindanao immediately issued an appeal to the rebels to also declare a ceasefire.
"May peace reign even just on Christmas Day," said the bishop. "We pray that both parties will observe it," he added.
The prelate said the Christmas truce "could be the light we have wanted to see in the tunnel that can lead to the resumption of the peace talks."
The president also claimed that the insurgents staged attacks against innocent civilians. Duterte later issued a declaration classifying the rebels "terrorists."
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro said the president's latest announcement was "welcome news."
"Hopefully it can lead to a resumption of the peace talks," he said.
Sister Elen Belardo, national coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, said the president's declaration was "a good gesture."
Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos expressed hope that "everyone on the ground" will honor the ceasefire.
"We should all focus our efforts in addressing the root causes of unpeace, both historical and social injustices," said the prelate.
Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga expressed his appreciation for "the good intentions of the government in exerting efforts to forge peace."
"The [rebels] must take advantage of this peace process and respect this ceasefire. They should be sincere as partners for peace, and denounce violence and atrocities," said the prelate.
He said the five-decades of insurgency in country "only leads to division and death."
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, however, questioned the sincerity of Duterte's ceasefire declaration.
"I don't believe in Duterte's pronouncements anymore. I will not dignify him with any comment," he told ucanews.com.
Truce not for rebels but for Filipinos
"I would want to celebrate Christmas with the rest of humankind or Filipinos, without stress," he told reporters in an interview on Dec. 20.
"The ceasefire is a unilateral action of the government to refrain from attacking," said the president, adding that many people are going to enjoy Christmas evening or going to Mass.
"I do not want to add more strain to what people are now suffering," he said.