Joma Sison hopes to end exile under Duterte

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine communist rebel leader Jose Maria Sison has expressed hopes of ending nearly three decades in exile under the new presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, a potentially explosive homecoming opposed by senior military figures.

Sison, now 77, fled to Europe soon after peace talks failed in 1987 and has stayed abroad since, while one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies continued to claim thousands of lives.

"I will return to the Philippines if Duterte fulfills his promise to visit me," the Netherlands-based Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder said in comments posted on his Facebook page late Wednesday, May 11.

"The prospects (for peace talks) seem to be bright at the moment," Sison added.

Sison, a political science professor, established the party in December 1968 and it launched a guerrilla campaign three months later.

The rebellion has left at least 30,000 people dead, by official account.

The New People's Army is believed to have fewer than 4,000 soldiers, down from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s, according to the military, however it retains support among the deeply poor in the rural Philippines.

Incumbent President Benigno Aquino III revived peace talks soon after taking office in 2010 but shelved them in 2013, accusing the rebels of insincerity in efforts to achieve a political settlement.

The talks got bogged down after the communists demanded the release of scores of their jailed comrades whom they described as "political prisoners", which the Aquino government rejected.

Duterte, who was Sison's student at a Manila university in the 1960s, is the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao. Some of the communists' strongholds today are near Davao, and Duterte has maintained relations with them.

Last week, local television station ABS-CBN released footage of Duterte chatting with Sison via Skype on his laptop.

"I'm a socialist," said Duterte, who won Monday's (May 9) election in a landslide.

The network said the chat took place shortly after communist rebels freed 5 police hostages last month in Davao.

Peace hopes

Sison said in the comments posted on Facebook he had congratulated Duterte via an intermediary on his win and called for the resumption of peace talks, a ceasefire, the release of political prisoners, and the "arrest and trial of Aquino".

Duterte was ready to release ailing and elderly rebels on humanitarian grounds, as well as those whom the movement appoints as peace negotiators after vetting by the military, police and state prosecutors, his spokesman Peter Laviña said Thursday, May 12.

"Our people are suffering from the internal conflict.... (Businessmen) doing business in these areas have been suffering for long. Any move to still the guns, declare ceasefire would be very welcome," Lavina told reporters.

He said Duterte planned to see Sison during a trip to Europe before the president-elect takes his oath of office on June 30.

Sison's comments were a transcript of an interview he gave to Dubai's Khaleej Times newspaper.

Sison said he hoped to return home after Duterte begins his term, but the communist leader added the new government must first take steps to ensure his personal safety.

"I will not dive into any situation in which the Duterte government is still unsettled and there are unwieldy elements... who violently oppose my homecoming," he added.

Lavina said the new government would uphold previous security guarantees for rebel negotiators while the military said it would support Duterte's peace efforts.

"If it's part of the peace efforts, he (Sison) is welcome to come here. But as for his other enemies, that would be another matter," military spokesman Colonel Noel Detoyato told Agence France-Presse but declined to elaborate.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, a Duterte critic and former military rebel, warned last week that some in the military were "strongly averse" to Duterte's long-standing ties with communists, and that the reaction "could be violent".

Lavina said the Trillanes warning was a personal opinion that "remains to be seen".

The spokesman said Duterte would consider communist figures for his cabinet, where retired military and police figures would also be represented. – Cecil Morella, AFP / Rappler.com