Hope springs eternal for talks with Reds

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine government and communist guerrillas are set to return to the negotiating table in early 2015, two years after talks collapsed in February 2013, Rappler learned from a government source.

Philippine chief peace adviser Teresita "Ging" Deles also hinted as much during her 2014 year-end briefing for the media before the holiday break.

“We will not make any announcement until something is, you know, [concrete]. In that sense, it will be a surprise,” Deles told Rappler after the briefing. 

While there are concerns that time is running out with less than two years left in the Aquino administration, Deles said it is important for both camps to return to the negotiating table. Her priority is to work out an arrangement that will help reduce the number of violent clashes between government troops and the Communist Party of the Philippines' (CPP) armed wing, the New People’s Army.

“On their (CPP) side, there may be some external developments. And people are getting old,” said a source involved in the talks, referring to the arrest of alleged CPP chief Benito Tiamzon and wife Wilma in March 2014.

The CPP, which turns 46 on Friday, December 26, is behind Asia’s longest-running insurgency. It has weakened from its 25,000 armed regulars in the '80s to its current 4,000 – based on military estimates – but occasional violence in the countryside has kept investors away from poor communities. (READ: Guess who's 45?)

There are positive signs.

In an act of goodwill, the NDF earlier this week announced the release of 8 cops and soldiers it has been keeping as political prisoners in Mindanao. Still, there are reports of violence before the scheduled ceasefire on December 24. (READ: NPA to release all POWs as Christmas 'gifts' and NPA rebels torch construction equipment in Camarines Norte)

PEACE TALKS SOON?. Picture dated 29 March 2002 shows NPA guerrillas at a clandestine assembly in the Cordillera region in northern Philippines. File photo by Agence France-Presse

PEACE TALKS SOON?. Picture dated 29 March 2002 shows NPA guerrillas at a clandestine assembly in the Cordillera region in northern Philippines.

File photo by Agence France-Presse

Game changer

After President Benigno Aquino III won in 2010, his administration resumed talks with the CPP's political arm, the National Democratic Front (NDF).

The process showed promise in the beginning until the government in early 2013 accused exiled CPP founder Jose Maria Sison of supposedly turning around on a “special track” that it was counting on to fast-track the peace process. The CPP, on the other hand, accused the government of sabotaging the talks.

Philippine government chief negotiator Alex Padilla moved to head Philhealth and later in December 2013 the CPP declared on its website that it was abandoning the peace talks to support ouster calls against President Aquino.

While Padilla continues to keep the post and has been involved in fixing the relationship with the NDF and the CPP, he told Rappler he will likely be replaced when the talks resume. "We're still hoping for a meaningful cessation of hostilities," Padilla said.

Padilla previously expressed concerns that Sison no longer has control of the CPP on the "ground," which is believed to have been taking the cue from the Tiamzon couple. (READ: Joma wants peace, the 'ground' doesn't – Padilla)

But their arrest in March changed the equation.

Elusive for decades, the sickly couple was arrested in Cebu over standing warrants of arrest for crimes against humanity, including murder, multiple murder, and frustrated murder charges. The CPP maintained these are trumped up charges. (READ: CPP chief, wife nabbed in Cebu – military)

Release the Tiamzon couple?

The NDF protested their arrest because they are supposedly protected by the Joint Agreement on Saferty and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG. The government insisted this was not in effect during their arrest. 

The couple's release has since been the battlecry of the communist movement. 

Deles is not shutting the door on the possibility of giving in to the demand. “Certainly, when you have peace talks and you have peace agreements, release of .. that is always part of a political settlement,” said Deles.

But would the government release the couple as soon as the NDF returns to the negotiating table? Or will they have to wait for the completion of the peace talks?

“It depends,” said Deles.

The release of the Tiamzons however will not be a decision entirely by the executive department because the courts are involved, a source added.

The Tiamzons have pending cases in various courts nationwide:

A military general welcomed the resumption of the peace talks, acknowledging that military response will not end the conflict. 

"We thought we can solve the problem through firepower. But these are issues. You should only defeat an issue with a better solution," he said. 

The military, he said, has also learned to focus on civil military operations in areas where the CPP is strong. – Rappler.com