MANILA, DECEMBER 26, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo is open to holding a historic meeting with former Presidents Corazon Aquino, Joseph Estrada and Fidel Ranos to unite the country, Palace officials said yesterday.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita issued the statement following a suggestion last week from Ramos for Mrs. Arroyo to lead such a meeting since she is the only one who can organize it.

“If everyone concerned has an open mind on this (unity meeting), why not?” Ermita said. “The President has always been reaching out, even those who are fighting the government in armed confrontation.”

Ermita, however, was not aware whether Mrs. Arroyo has begun back-channel talks to lay the groundwork for such a meeting.

Appearing before the ANC program “The Big Picture” last week, Ramos disclosed that his staff was talking with representatives of Mrs. Aquino for possible four-way talks with other presidents.

He said their discussions were progressing smoothly so far. He said Mrs. Arroyo has to take the lead since she is the sitting President.

Estrada earlier expressed willingness to participate in such a meeting but added that he would oppose efforts to amend the Constitution.

Last month, the Federation of Philippine Industries (FPI) urged the four political leaders to “take the bold step of uniting the country.”

Jesus Arranza, FPI president, said a meeting between the four leaders is a bold step that would finally unite the country and trigger a economic growth.

“All of them love the country and that hopefully would entice them to set aside old differences,” Arranza said. “This is what the Filipino people want and they should heed the call of the people.”

Arranza said the followers of Mrs. Arroyo, Estrada, Ramos and Mrs. Aquino “cannot do it alone so they should take the lead” in fostering national unity and reconciliation.

He believes that the Palace has already thought of the idea of having the four leaders meet but added he has not spoken with any administration official on the matter.

Arranza said the FPI and other business groups will write formal appeals to the four leaders for them to sit down and talk.

He said the country cannot afford to remain divided owing to serious external challenges, including runaway oil prices.

He said in the meeting, they can “exchange ideas about their experiences and make a collective decision and help each other toward economic progress.”

It would also provide the four leaders a forum to forge a common stance in drafting measures to address economic issues, as well as thorny political concerns that negate the economic gains, he said.

Arranza noted that as far economic measures are concerned, the country is on the right track, but its gains have always been derailed by political bickering.

While Malacañang has claimed that Mrs. Arroyo was a better poverty buster, Arranza said inputs from the three former presidents should not be belittled and should be encouraged.

He also noted the three former presidents still have loyal followings that could be mustered for reconciliation and stability.

Palace: Amnesty to weaken insurgency By Marvin Sy Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Malacañang expressed confidence yesterday that with the communist insurgency under control and after Congress concurs with the amnesty proclamation of the President, the number of rebel forces would further dwindle.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita also reiterated that proposals to revive the anti-subversion law would no longer be necessary if the communist insurgency would continue its decline.

“Right now, given the conditions, we can still handle the insurgency well enough especially that the anti-subversion is repealed,” Ermita said.

Ermita, who initiated the repeal of Republic Act 1700 when he was still a congressman from Batangas, said security forces are already well-equipped with enough laws to deal with the insurgency.

Republic Act 1700, which outlawed the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), was repealed by RA 7636 introduced by Ermita and other lawmakers in 1992.

President Arroyo earlier expressed support for moves to revive the anti-insurgency law during a recent speech before the local peace and security assembly in the Calabarzon area.

But Malacañang was quick to clarify that Mrs. Arroyo herself was not pushing for the revival of the law but was merely airing her support for the decision of local peace assemblies.

Sorsogon Rep. Jose Solis came up with the idea of reviving the controversial law through an amendment of the Human Security Act or the country’s version of the anti-terrorism law.

Ermita said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) has the Human Security Act and the Revised Penal Code to go after insurgents engaged in terrorist activities.

Ermita stressed the government does not go after insurgents indiscriminately and carry out extrajudicial killings as alleged by militant groups.

“The truth is it’s becoming a good basis to say there is no witchhunting on the side of the government,” Ermita said.

“Only those who violate overtly the Revised Penal Code are the ones proceeded against, mere membership is not enough to charge them,” he said.

Ermita said the communist New People’s Army (NPA) has currently less than 7,000 guerrillas. He said the figure is expected to dwindle further when Congress concurs with the amnesty proclamation of the President.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved