The Philippine government and communist rebels were upbeat but cautious as they reopened peace talks yesterday, aimed at ending a four-decade-long insurgency that has killed at least 120,000 combatants and civilians.
A truce has been declared during the week-long talks outside Oslo, the first formal peace negotiations between the two sides since 2004.
It’s the first time since the on-and-off talks opened 25 years ago that the rebels have agreed to a ceasefire while negotiations are being held. However, prospects for progress remained uncertain after the arrest hours earlier of a top guerrilla leader.
“Dialogue is not a sign of weakness. It is a strategy of the brave. It opens doors,” Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told delegates and reporters in opening comments yesterday at a Nesbru hotel.
The two sides finally agreed last month to talks, the first since 2004, in a bid to end the decades-old rebellion which has claimed thousands of lives.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s administration expressed hopes that the festering conflict would be over by 2014, but the fact that fighting has persisted is a bad sign for the already slow-moving peace process.
Meanwhile, observers have cautioned that the seven days of closed-door negotiations between the representatives from Manila and the National Democratic Front (NDF) — the political arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) — probably will not lead to an immediate breakthrough.
Only hours before the talks began, the Philippine army announced the capture of a senior guerrilla leader, Alan Jasminez, a Central Committee member of the CPP.
Army troops and police captured Jazmines at a rebel safehouse in Baliuag town in Bulacan Province before nightfall on Monday, military chief of staff General Ricardo David said.
He will stand trial for rebellion, David said, while a police statement said he also faced 13 murder charges.
The NDF have demanded his immediate release, pointing out that he was a negotiation consultant and warning that his arrest could disrupt the talks.
There was no immediate reaction yesterday morning from government officials and rebel leaders involved in the talks.
Five Philippine presidents have failed to crush the Maoist rebellion, which is one of Asia’s longest-running armed conflicts.
The talks, mediated by Norway, are intended to start a series of discussions on economic and political reforms to end the hostilities.
Rebel negotiator Luis Jalandoni said the release of political prisoners will be among the issues being discussed.
Government chief negotiator Alexander Padilla declined to comment on the talks on Monday, but said in a statement last week that his “most optimistic projection” is that the negotiations can be completed in 18 months and peace achieved in three years if both sides are focused and sincere.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, said the negotiations “may be the best hope in years for halting an insurgency that has prevented development in large parts of the Philippines.”
The rebels have demanded that three of the Communist Party’s negotiators, who risk arrest at home, be allowed to participate in the discussions. Jalandoni said on Monday that two of them were in Norway, while the third would take part in the next round of talks.