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AP Interview: Peace talks possible, says exiled Philippine communist leader

The Associated Press
Monday, October 29, 2007

UTRECHT, Netherlands: The door is open for a resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and communist rebels who have been waging a nearly 40-year insurgency, an exiled former rebel leader said.

Jose Maria Sison, 68, living in the Netherlands since the mid-1980s, told The Associated Press he believes the conflict will be resolved in his lifetime and he will return to his homeland - though it may not be during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, due to end in 2010.

He said he has been preparing for a resumption of talks since his arrest in August by Dutch authorities - and swift release for lack of evidence - for allegedly ordering killings in the Philippines.

"The main aim is to develop the grounds for the resumption of peace negotiations either under the Arroyo regime or after," Sison said in an interview at the bare-bones offices of the leftist National Democratic Front in Utrecht.

The Communists have a long list of demands including land and economic reforms and improvement of human rights in the Philippines.

Sison said the Arroyo government's vow to stomp out the insurrection militarily, as well as anger over corruption scandals and alleged human rights violations - especially the targeting of leftist lawyers and sympathizers for extrajudicial killings - made it difficult for the two sides to talk.

But the NDF, an umbrella group of leftists that includes the outlawed communists and their armed wing, is "open to peace negotiations even during the time of Arroyo. If she's willing," Sison said.

Norway is leading arbitration attempts. Sison said that on Oct. 23, a delegation led by Norwegian diplomat Hans Braatskar met in Utrecht with the NDF's chief negotiator, Luis Jalandoni, to test the waters for a resumption of talks, frozen since mid-2004.

Sison was arrested Aug. 28, on charges of ordering the killings of comrades who defected to the government side. The killings were claimed by the Communist Party of the Philippines, and Dutch prosecutors said they would hold Sison responsible as the CPP's leader. However, judges ruled there was insufficient evidence and ordered him released.

Sison helped found the CPP in 1968 but spent 10 years in prison under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and has been in the Netherlands for 20 more. Sison, who denies any role in the killings, says he has been gone too long to hold any direct power in the organization.

"The Arroyo regime, like other regimes, has overrated me," he said. "I'm one of their more noticeable annoyances."

He describes himself as the NDF's "chief political consultant."

The CPP and its armed wing were branded terrorist organizations at the request of the Philippine government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and Sison was placed on European terrorism lists in 2002.

The Dutch government would like to be rid of him, but attempts to expel him to the Philippines foundered due to the lack of an extradition treaty.

Sison said removal of the "terrorist" tag was not a precondition for peace talks, though one condition for a permanent cease-fire would be for foreign governments to "cease interference" in the Philippines' internal affairs.

The United States formally removed its military bases from the Philippines in 1992, but has maintained troops there for ongoing exercises, most recently against Islamic separatist groups operating in the nation's south.

The Hague District Court ordered Sison released Sept. 13, citing a lack of evidence. Prosecutors appealed his release, but a Superior Court upheld it, adding that evidence against him had should be seen in a "possible political context."

"That's a very elegant way of saying, there's political motivation," Sison said.

Prosecutors are due to decide Nov. 5 whether to proceed.

After Sison's arrest, Arroyo declared an amnesty for any rebels who wished to give up their arms.

Rebel propaganda puts their number of troops at 12,000, but the Philippines army says their number is half that. The amnesty does not appear to have worked, and the Philippines has vowed to crush the rebellion before Arroyo's term expires.

Sison said a military victory would prove as elusive as it has over the past 40 years until "root problems" such as land reform are addressed.

Sison conceded that many people question the point of a Maoist rebellion in the 21st Century, but still challenged the Arroyo government to meet the rebels at the negotiating table.

"If you believe so, that the revolution is hopeless, why don't you be confident enough to sit down with the NDF and discuss seriously the problems in the Philippines and what solutions there can be in form of social, economic and political reforms?"

He said his recent jailing was part of a "character assassination" attempt, and he has been making an effort to show a human face to counter that including recording CDs of protest songs, including his rendition of "My Way," with a tweaked chorus: "I Did It Mao's Way."

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