MANILA, Philippines – Communist rebels waging one of the world's longest-running insurgencies in the Philippines said they are willing to discuss a formal ceasefire proposed by the government in upcoming talks in the Netherlands.
The insurgency began in 1968 and has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives according to the military.
The meeting, starting Sunday, April 2, will be the 4th round of talks between the National Democratic Front (NDF) and Manila, which have been on and off for 30 years but were restarted by President Rodrigo Duterte after he took office in June 2016.
"The [NDF] believes it is possible at the soonest time to have a bilateral ceasefire agreement," chief rebel negotiator Fidel Agcaoili said in a statement issued from his exile in the Netherlands late Friday, March 31.
He said the rebel negotiating team was "willing to be flexible and is open to discussing with its counterpart what kind of bilateral ceasefire agreement is desired by the (government)."
However, chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello III said Friday that he expected the week's talks to be "very difficult and exacting," with no guarantees for a breakthrough.
The NDF is made up of several groups, the most prominent of which is the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), whose guerrilla unit is the 4,000-strong New People's Army (NPA).
CPP 'fully supports' peace talks
In a separate statement on Saturday, the CPP said that it "fully supports" the peace talks "despite the non-issuance of ceasefire declarations by either side."
The CPP pointed out on Saturday that it "did not proceed to issue a declaration of interim ceasefire yesterday [March 31]" after the Philippine government "announced that it will not issue a similar ceasefire declaration."
The communist rebels added, "The CPP anticipates heightened attacks by the AFP against civilians in light of Duterte's non-declaration of ceasefire."
"The Party calls on the people to rally and protest the extrajudicial killings, aerial bombings, occupation of communities, forcible evacuations, hamletting, and other fascist criminal attacks perpetrated by the AFP against the peasant masses. Expose the AFP for propagating lies and fake news to cover up their crimes," the CPP said.
"In light of AFP's intensified attacks against civilians, the New People's Army is duty-bound to punish the perpetrators of these fascist crimes and carry out offensives to disable the AFP from carrying out further attacks and armed suppression against the civilians," it added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, on the other hand, tagged the NPA as "terrorists" a day before the 4th round of peace talks.
"I, therefore, call upon all peace-loving Filipinos to resist these thugs, these terrorists who have brought nothing but misery to the Filipino people in the past 48 years. Let us resist their extortions because giving in will make them strong and perpetuate their criminal acts," Lorenzana said in a statement Saturday.
Primary goal: Permanent ceasefire
The government has billed a permanent ceasefire as its primary goal, though a week of negotiations on the outskirts of Rome in January ended without such a deal.
Duterte, a self-described socialist who once boasted of his links to the communist rebels, has made a peace deal with the movement one of his top priorities.
After taking office he released captured rebel leaders and both sides declared separate temporary ceasefires to pave the way for peace talks, the first round of which Norway hosted and mediated in August.
But the fiery leader was seen to have jeopardized the peace process in February, angrily calling off talks after the guerrillas killed several soldiers and police in a series of attacks.
Norway convinced the two parties to return to the negotiating table, following informal talks held in the Dutch city of Utrecht last month.
Bello said Duterte wanted as the first item on the April 2-6 agenda a negotiated ceasefire leading to the "lowering or ending of hostilities."
The two sides said Sunday's meeting, originally scheduled for Oslo, will be held in the Dutch town of Noordwijk, which is close to Utrecht where rebel negotiator Agcaoili and some of the senior leaders of the insurgency live in exile.
As well as a possible ceasefire, both sides are expected to discuss a raft of socio-economic reforms that Bello described as "the heart and soul of the peace process."
These aim to address the roots of the conflict that he said were linked to "social justice, extreme poverty... [and] corruption in the government". – with reports from Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com