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How can the nation walk the path towards a just and lasting peace?

While there is growing optimism among human rights groups and peace advocates on the resumption of the formal peace talks between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the failure on the part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and its paramilitary forces to end the long practice of human rights abuses is an outlandish blow against all the Filipino people who are working towards a just and lasting peace.

Despite the AFP's suspension of military operations (SOMO) against the New People’s Army (NPA) during the 5-day unilateral ceasefire declared by President Rodrigo Duterte, it is extremely outrageous that military elements and the AFP-backed paramilitary forces have continued atrocious combat operations in communities they tagged as stronghold of the NPA.

Reportedly, a few hours before the president lifted the unilateral ceasefire on July 30, eleven (11) elements of the 8th Infantry Battalion Philippine Army headed by Alde ‘Butsoy’ Salusad, a leader of New Indigenous People’s Army for Reform– (NIPAR) indiscriminately fired at a house where 80 people from the Tighawanon tribe are attending a wedding ceremony in Barangay Kawayan, San Fernando, Bukidnon.

The military did not spare anyone, targeting both young and old. After shooting spree that lasted for 10 minutes, 6-month pregnant Makenet Gayoran was found lying on the ground bathing in her own blood.  She orphaned her 9-month old child who was in her arms, when a bullet pierced through her chest and killed her instantaneously. Aside from Makenet, seven individuals were reportedly injured including five minors – three teenagers, one 8-year old boy, and another 7-year old boy. Due to the disturbing incident, around 48 families composed of 81 individuals evacuated their community.

As child rights advocates, we cry our strong condemnation of this outright disregard of human rights of members of state forces and their paramilities. Impunity, indeed, persists.

We can easily draw a difference between the past and present administrations in terms of willingness to pursue peace talks and their strategies in handling negotiations with armed groups. In fact, it is laudable that President Duterte has made a remarkable jumpstart to accelerate the talks with the NDFP, including the promise to release its peace consultants and other political prisoners as well as the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25.

However, the president cannot raise the white flag while his troops on the ground continue to aim their rifles against civilians including children.

In rural areas, children of farmers and indigenous peoples are heavily stricken by poverty and scarcity of social  services which gravely affect their survival and development. Moreover, these factors are compounded, when they become targets of military abuses.

 

With barely two weeks prior to the scheduled talk on August 20 in Oslo, Norway, we strongly urge President Duterte to keep up his promise of peace and change. The GPH under his leadership should resume peace negotiations with the NDFP, release all political prisoners, uphold previous bilateral agreements and continue working on substantive peace agenda, especially on the social and economic reform to address the roots of conflict.  Only through these actions can the nation walk the path towards a just and lasting peace.