Benigno Aquino ready to talk to rebels

Sources say the new president of the Philippines is creating a peace panel, while a leftists' front group is 'ready and willing to talk'.

Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has been living in the Netherlands since 1987.
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MANILA // One of the major tests for the incoming administration of the Philippine president-elect, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, will be how to end one of the world's longest-running communist insurgencies.

For 41 years the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People's Army (NPA), has fought a relentless armed struggle in the countryside that has cost more than 40,000 lives, according to the military . Negotiations to end the conflict have dragged on for years, without any resolution. Analysts say the party's founding chairman, Jose Maria Sison, who has been living in exile in the Netherlands since 1987, is open to talks with the Aquino administration.

It was Mr Aquino's mother, Corazon Aquino, who released Mr Sison and other senior members of the Communist Party shortly after she became president following the removal of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Sources within Mr Aquino's Liberal Party said moves were already underway to establish a peace panel but could not say who would be on it. Luis Jalandoni, who heads a negotiating panel for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, an umbrella linking left-wing groups, in particular the CCP and NPA, said recently that the front "is willing and ready to resume formal peace talks with the new administration".

In a posting on the front's website, he said: "We aim for peace talks that address the roots of the armed conflict through fundamental economic, social and political reforms. "Within the context of the strategic framework of people's war [that] his movement follows, Sison is sincere," Ramon Casiple, the executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said in an interview. "The desire to talk, I think, is there. It's another thing if there is the real desire to conclude an agreement. The Aquino government should be open to talks but only within the context of a real, permanent peace."

Rommel Banlaoi, the head of intelligence and national security at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research in Manila, said: "Sison's willingness to talk to the new government may be welcomed by the new administration but it also exposes a deep rift within the CPP leadership." The rift is between supporters of Mr Sison and Benito Tiamzon, the vice chairman of the CPP and head of the NPA's military commission.

Many within the party believe Mr Sison is out of touch with the "revolution" in the Philippines and by endorsing candidates in the May 10 elections, he abandoned his principles and was moving towards supporting mainstream politics. Local media had reported that the CPP put up US$21 million (Dh77m) to support leftist candidates in the general elections - and that most of the money had been raised through extortion of businesses, such as logging and mining.

Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based political and economic risk consultancy, said in a February report: "The widening rift is reportedly extending down to the supporters of Sison, who has more supporters in Luzon [the main Philippine island] and followers of Tiamzon, who wields much influence in the Visayas and Mindanao regions where he supervises ground operations." Mr Banlaoi said: "It is no secret Sison, now in his 70s, has softened his stand on the armed struggle while Tiamzon has become more militaristic and wants to take the struggle to the more populated areas such as cities.

"I think this is a further sign that Sison is no longer in full control of the CPP and the wider communist movement in the Philippines." The report says that Mr Tiamzon and his wife, Wilma Austria-Tiamzon, who is a CPP central committee member, want the bulk of the party's funds to go towards strengthening the NPA, which, at the height of the insurgency during the early 1980s, totalled 25,000 insurgents.

Today the number is said to be between 3,000 and 4,000, according to the military, but no one knows the exact numbers. With the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and the modernisation of China, the CPP has lost a major source of funding. Even so, it still appeals to young radicals in the countryside where poverty is rife. According to Mr Banlaoi, the NPA resorts to organised crime to raise funds mainly through extortion.

The Pacific Strategies and Assessments report describes the division in the CPP coming from a "growing resentment among ground cadres who want the money they collect from extortion to be spent in accordance with the protracted war, instead of political pursuits of those living more comfortable lives". If the CPP's central authority appears to weaken, some units of the NPA may become less ideologoical and resort to criminal activity, Mr Casiple said.

"I don't think there is a factional situation within the CPP ? at least not yet. But the [recent] elections and the outcome may provoke factionalism," Mr Casiple said. "The nature of the insurgency is political, not simply an armed movement nor does it spring from poverty or cultural issues although these contribute to the problem." kwilson@thenational.ae