[PHOTO AT LEFT: PRAYING FOR PEACE: President Arroyo, along with (from right) presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles, Senate President Franklin Drilon, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, attends Mass at the EDSA Shrine in Mandaluyong City before sending off the government panel which flew to Oslo, Norway yesterday for the resumption of peace talks with communist rebel leaders. - Revoli Cortez]

MANILA, February 9, 2004 (STAR) The government wants to sign a peace agreement to settle the 35-year-old communist rebellion before the May 10 general elections, but the rebels said this was highly unlikely.

New People’s Army (NPA) spokesman Gregorio "Ka Roger" Rosal said the rebels would also decline any proposal for a long ceasefire when the two sides resume long-stalled peace talks tomorrow in Norway.

"We want to have a settlement hopefully before the elections to bring down the level of violence, clashes," chief government negotiator Silvestre Bello III said before leaving for Norway’s capital of Oslo yesterday.

Bello said he would propose a quicker way of negotiation in which two committees would simultaneously tackle major issues such as social and economic reforms and political and constitutional changes demanded by the rebels.

Rosal said it was possible that agreements on some issues could be reached before the elections, but that a final settlement of the insurgency was unlikely in just a few months.

"That would be very difficult," he told Radio Mindanao Network yesterday.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, Jose Maria Sison, founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and chief political consultant of the rebel peace panel, told The STAR’s Paris Bureau he is confident that the government and rebel panels will reach "some measure of success" during the peace negotiations scheduled in Oslo this week.

"I’m optimistic," he said. "So much has been done during the preliminary discussions last November and December that I see no breakdown of the talks."

The 65-year-old former CPP supremo and chief tactician of the New People’s Army (NPA), who has been living in exile in Utrecht since 1986, has just received his laisser-passer, a legal travel document issued by the Dutch foreign ministry in the absence of a valid Philippine passport, and a return visa from the Dutch justice ministry to allow him to return to Utrecht after the peace talks.

Sison, who is scheduled to leave Utrecht for Oslo today, outlined the three points raised during the preliminary discussions between the government and rebel panels.

Sison said the three points concern the framework for the reaffirmation of the 1991 Hague Joint Declaration Agreement, the increased role and responsibilities of the Norwegian government in spearheading and hosting the talks, and the issue of the US foreign terrorist tag on Sison.

"In principle, the two sides (GRP and NDF) are against the terrorist listing," he said.

"The US has no jurisdiction over me for events that took place in the Philippines and they, the US cannot usurp jurisdiction rights that belong to the Philippines," he said.

Sison said he expects more participation from representatives of the Norwegian government who, he said, can make suggestions to either or both parties.

"There will surely be more progress," he said.

"We also expect to achieve the formation of the Joint Monitoring Committee as mandated by the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) that will oversee implementation of the peace terms by a ten-person panel," he said.

Sison said another committee will be formed on social and economic reforms which will be tasked to organize the acceleration of work on the issue of reforms.

"Of course, it will take some time to achieve a comprehensive agreement," he said. "I don’t want to jump to a ‘happy’ conclusion because people might be disappointed if they perceive that the results are not satisfactory."

Sison is confident that the Oslo peace talks next week will be able to come up with a list of political prisoners who can be freed, and a draft list of prisoners to be subsequently released.

During the interview, Sison gave the impression that he was ready to come to terms with the government to achieve "a just and lasting peace."

However, when asked whether the National Democratic Front (NDF) could rein in the NPA and stop all hostilities, at least during and immediately after the talks, Sison said, "I think the lessening of the armed conflict is a burden that should fall on the Philippine National Police and on the Armed Forces of the Philippines, they being the greater force. If these attackers (PNP-AFP) keep to their barracks, there will be less hostilities."

The talks "must not fail in the interest of the Arroyo administration whose term has only a few months left before the elections," he added.

At the end of the interview, Sison said that if everything goes well in Oslo, the next venue for the peace talks will perhaps be "somewhere in China."

The peace negotiations in Oslo are also expected to tackle the sensitive issue concerning the release of political prisoners, which was discussed initially before the breakdown of the talks in 2001. Root Cause Rosal called on the government to go to the root cause of the communist rebellion to find a "political settlement" during peace talks in Oslo, Norway.

"We are seeking for a change in the state of the economy because this is the root cause of poverty," he said in an interview over Radio Mindanao Network.

"If we can agree on these then I think that we can come up with a political settlement that is being sought by the several groups, including us in the (NDF)."

Rosal said the NDF has not asked for its removal from the list of "foreign terrorist organizations" of the United States and the European Union as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks with the government.

The NDF wants the government to protest its inclusion and that of the NPA and CPP in the list, he added.

Rosal said the government promised to take "diplomatic steps" to have the problem resolved, but that no development has yet taken place.

The NDF will respect whatever agreement is reached during the peace talks, he added.

On the other hand, Bello said he is hopeful that the peace talks would end 35 years of fighting between the government and the communist rebels.

"Unlike the past two years where everything was but exploratory, the two panels are going back to the peace table in formal and serious negotiations," he said.

"This time however, we are confident we can address issues and concerns. Our level of confidence that we are going to succeed comes from the willingness of both panels to speed up the process in a joint declaration signed earlier this month."

It could be a coincidence, but government negotiators will arrive in Oslo in time for Sison’s 65th birthday.

Sison, who lives in Utrecht with his wife, Juliet de Lima, and youngest son, Jasm, was born on Feb. 8, 1939 in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur.

As Oslo is 18 hours behind Manila, by the time the Philippine delegation led by Bello arrives in the Norwegian capital, Sison will be celebrating his birthday.

Since the Norwegian government is hosting and acting as third-party facilitator in the peace talks, foreign dignitaries will be present in Sison’s birthday party.

Bello did not tell reporters in Manila if the government peace panel would take part in Sison’s birthday bash upon their arrival in Oslo. Peaceful Solution Meanwhile, congressmen led by Representatives Wilfrido Villarama of Bulacan, Prospero Pichay of Surigao del Sur, and Aurelio Umali of Nueva Ecija said the peace talks have given Filipinos renewed hope to attain unity and reconciliation.

Villarama, vice chairman of the House committee on globalization, said the resumption of peace negotiations with communist rebels shows Mrs. Arroyo has chosen a peaceful solution to the 35-year-old communist rebellion.

Pichay, chairman of the committee of national defense, said the peace talks could take up the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire between the government and the rebels during the May 10 elections.

Umali said the resumption of peace talks shows the government’s determination to have a true and lasting peace.

Figures from the PNP show the NPA was responsible for the death of nine candidates and the wounding of another during the 2001 election campaign.

Two NPA rebels and three gunmen belonging to a private group were also killed during that time, the report added.

Director Avelino Razon, PNP deputy chief for operations, said statistics show an increase in "election-related" violent deaths during the past three presidential elections.

At least 79 people, among them nine candidates, were killed and 111 were wounded during the 1995 elections, he added.

Sison founded the militant Kabataang Makabayan (KM) on Nov. 30, 1964. It took part in the historic First Quarter Storm in 1970.

The KM was outlawed after martial law was imposed on Sept. 21, 1972, but it exists up to this day as the CPP’s underground youth arm.

When Sison was KM chairman from 1964 to 1968, he was allied with the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP).

However, on Dec. 26, 1968, Sison and a handful of student radicals founded the CPP along the borders of Tarlac and Pangasinan.

On March 29 the following year, Sison met with Bernabe Buscayno alias Commander Dante, a disgruntled leader of the PKP’s armed wing, the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB), in Capas, Tarlac to form the NPA.

Sison was captured by government forces in 1977, and released from detention in 1986 by the Aquino administration shortly after the EDSA I people power uprising.

After suspected military agents killed militant student leader Lean Alejandro and labor leader Rolando Olalia, Sison went on self-exile in the Netherlands for fear of his life.

Sison has denied that he remains chairman of the CPP central committee, as authorities have been insisting that he is using the nom de guerre, Armando Liwanag.

When he founded the CPP, Sison’s alias was Amado Guerrero.

The three-day peace talks in Oslo will commence on Feb. 10.

Topping the agenda of the negotiations will be discussions on how the government and the rebels will implement the CARHRIHL.

The document, signed by government and rebel representatives during the Estrada administration, is regarded by rebel leaders as an instrument that would ensure "humanitarian conduct" in the armed conflict.

Also included in the agenda for discussion will be the revival of the "reciprocal working committees" that shall draft an agreement on socio-economic and agrarian reforms, as well as Malacañang’s suggestion for an "accelerated and sequential" pace of the peace process.

Mrs. Arroyo suspended the negotiations in mid-2001 after rebel leaders refused to call off political killings.

NPA hit men killed Representatives Rodolfo Aguinaldo of Cagayan and Marcial Punzalan of Quezon.

But a breakthrough was reached in at least two "back-channel" negotiations between the government panel and Europe-based rebel leaders in October and November last year.

Among the accepted rebel demands was for the Arroyo administration to renounce the US-instigated "terrorist" tag on the CPP-NPA and Sison, the release of political prisoners identified with the Left, and for the government to hasten the indemnification of human rights victims of martial law.

Sison, who said he was tortured in detention during martial law, is among the claimants in the class suit filed against the Marcoses.

Most other petitioners seeking payment for political persecutions during martial law are also identified with the radical Left. — Vi Massart in Paris, Marvin Sy, Benjie Villa, Christina Mendez

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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