Duterte declares unilateral holiday ceasefire with communist rebels

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Updated with statements from the Philippine National Police, Defense Secretary, National Democratic Front legal counsel

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 20) — The government will not launch offensives against communist rebels this holiday season following President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of a unilateral ceasefire.

"The President announced last night a suspension of military operations from December 24, 2017 to January 2, 2018," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement on Wednesday.

Malacanang on Thursday clarified the ceasefire takes effect from 6 p.m. on December 23 to 11:59 p.m. on December 26, and the same hours on December 30 to January 2, 2018.

The DND reminded security forces to remain vigilant despite the suspension of operations during this period.

"We urge those who are waging war against our sovereign government and inflicting harm on the Filipino people to spend this period in reflection and seriously reconsider returning to the fold of law," the DND said.

The truce was meant to "lessen the apprehension of the public this Christmas season," Roque said.

The government said expects the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA) to "do a similar gesture of goodwill."

The rebels said they have always been open to declaring their own truce.

The government's ceasefire declaration "comes on the heels of the rebel movement's standing openness to declare its own," said Edre Olalia, legal counsel of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

The NDFP represents rebels in peace talks to end the communist movement's 48-year-old armed insurgency, the longest-running in Asia.

However, the rebels should treat the government's truce with an "abundance of caution," Olalia said.

"We should be wary that this is not but another ruse to deflect its proven refusal and inability to genuinely address and resolve the roots of the prolonged armed conflict or is just another populist gimmick," Olalia said of the government. He added the government has a history of violating its own ceasefire.

While the truce may be considered a "positive move," Olalia said it was incongruous amid the termination of peace talks, "terrorist tagging and demonization," and the extension of martial law in Mindanao which included a crackdown on NPA rebels.

The truce declared by Duterte comes weeks after he severed ties with the NPA, which he declared a terrorist organization. The NPA's designation as a terrorist organization will be official once approved by a regional trial court, according to the Human Security Act of 2007.

Defense Department: Unaware of President's declaration

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was unaware of the President's order until reporters asked him about it in an interview on Wednesday. He also said he did not recommend the unilateral ceasefire.

"I was actually adamant...I did not recommend for the cessation of military operation against the CPP-NPA," Lorenzana said.

However he said he will follow the President's directive.

"If the President declared so then we are going to implement and abide by the directive of the President," Lorenzana said.

The Philippine National Police also expressed support for the President's order. Earlier in the week, all police units were ordered to "maintain a high state of vigilance against possible hostilities" by the NPA, ahead of the 49th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines on December 26.

Duterte vs. NPA

The government and rebels usually declare ceasefires during the holiday break. But a rash of violent attacks by the NPA against troops in different parts of the Philippines, prompted Duterte to call off on November 23 all peace talks with the communists, and tag them as terrorists. Thus a ceasefire seemed unlikely this year.

Read more: Duterte ends talks with Reds

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he supports the government's truce, but hopes for consistency in the administration's policies.

"One day Malacañang says we don't want truce the next day a truce is declared. It's a bit confusing," Drilon said.

In an interview Tuesday, Duterte said he does "not declare ceasefires anymore with anybody." But he said he would consider a holiday truce with the NPA. "I do not want to add more strain to what people are now suffering."

Roque earlier this week said there would be no suspension of offensives against the CPP-NPA during the holiday break, saying it would only embolden the NPA to commit more atrocities.

Duterte cited the "intensified" rebellion of the NPA as among the reasons why martial law should be extended in Mindanao until December 2018.

A joint session of Congress on December 13 approved the President's request to uphold military rule in Mindanao for another year.