MANILA - Malacañang on Thursday said there is legal basis for President Rodrigo Duterte's threat to arrest members of the communist movement's "legal fronts," a collective term he uses for left-leaning groups.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press briefing that the so-called legal fronts may be held liable for conspiring with the New People's Army (NPA), the communist movement's armed wing that the President has branded as "terrorists", to commit rebellion and sow terror.
"The President as public prosecutor has said that conspiracy is sufficient basis to accuse them of both rebellion and acts of terrorism because, in a conspiracy, the act of one is the act of all," Roque said in a news conference in Malacañang.
"Even if they did not physically take up arms, if they’re part of a conspiracy to commit acts of terror or rebellion, then they can be held liable under the theory of conspiracy," said Roque, a lawyer.
In a speech before soldiers Wednesday in Nueva Ecija, Duterte said he would order the arrest of members of the Left's "legal fronts", as peace talks between communist rebels and the government collapsed.
"I will no longer recognize them as an entity negotiating with government. I will simply declare you all terrorists. Terorista kayo," Duterte said in his speech at Fort Magsaysay.
"At ‘yung mga legal fronts ninyo, alam ko... ‘Wag na lang tayo magbolahan, galing ako diyan eh. You are helping each other, conspiring to topple or whatever, to sow terror. We will treat you as a criminal, period. And we will arrest everybody connected with ‘yung mga legal fronts nila."
Militant umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said it is unfazed by Duterte's pronouncements against the NPA and other leftist groups.
"Labeling the NPA as 'terrorist' does nothing to address the root causes of the armed conflict, and will therefore fail to end the rebellion. It will only intensify the attacks on the people, especially unarmed civilians. As a result, it will only fuel the people's struggle," Bayan said in a statement.
"Duterte's threat to proscribe progressive mass organizations is not new in our history as it was done by [the late strongman Ferdinand] Marcos before and also attempted by [former President Gloria] Arroyo. In both cases, the mass movement responded in the best way it can - resistance."
Prior to the termination of talks, Duterte announced he would soon have the NPA declared as a terrorist group. The communist party's armed wing has long been under the United States' list of terrorist organizations.
Duterte, a former student of Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairman Jose Maria Sison, had sought to end the nearly 50-year communist insurgency early in his term, even appointing left-leaning individuals to his Cabinet as a demonstration of warming ties between government and the communist movement.
Government officials and negotiators from the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) had 4 rounds of talks in Europe, where Sison is based, before Duterte suspended negotiations in May.
The talks, however, were stalled following armed clashes between government troops and communist guerrillas.
Duterte's anger against the communists was reignited following the death of a 4-month-old girl who was hit by a stray bullet in a rebel ambush in Bukidnon earlier this month.
The NDFP said it is hopeful that Duterte's move to abandon peace talks was just a means of "expressing his anger" over the attack.
NDFP chief peace negotiator Fidel Agcaoili said the government should not backtrack on the promises and agreements they made.
Agcaoili also criticized Duterte's plan to tag communists as a terrorist group, saying the NDFP has not carried out any transnational operations and has clashed only with "combatants, not civilians."
The infant's death in the communist attack in Bukidnon, he said, was "unfortunate," but the NDFP cannot allow security forces to allegedly attack communities suspected of supporting communists.
"It's simple. If they (state troops) stay in their barracks, they would not be ambushed," Agcaoili said.