MANILA--Peace talks with communist rebels are still on even though President Rodrigo Duterte has refused to release more political prisoners until they agreed on a bilateral ceasefire, negotiators said Monday.
Both sides are in the thick of preparations for the next round of talks, which will tackle big-ticket items like land reform and national industrialization, in Rome next month, said Edre Olalia, a legal consultant for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines panel.
"Even the terms of 'snag' or 'impasse' have never been raised," he told ABS-CBN News. "The schedule is on, the process is on."
Barring an "earthshaking and cataclysmic event," government negotiator Rene Sarmiento said both panels could sign a final peace agreement by July or August next year.
"All these pronouncements regarding snag, disruption, this is not something new for us in the panel," he said. "We have encountered the same difficulty in the past but we have overcome it."
Duterte on Sunday insisted he would not free some 130 political detainees soon, saying he would "run out of cards if I keep on releasing their comrades."
“I said I can only do so much. Now, if it’s terminated, then it’s terminated," he said.
Olalia said it was "unfortunate" that political prisoners, many of whom were sick and elderly, were being treated as a "last card" in the negotiations.
But he said the issue was not the "be-all and end-all" of the peace talks.
"What will make or break the negotiations is if either or both parties will refuse or will be unable to come up with an acceptable agreement on fundamental reforms, which is, after all, the purpose of the peace negotiations: address the roots of the armed conflict to achieve a just and lasting peace," he said.
On Monday, the government panel held a consultation meeting with members of the academe and other experts on political and constitutional reform, including a possible shift to a federal system.
Both sides will exchange drafts early next month before the talks tentatively set from Jan. 18 to 25.
Reforms should include an "institutional design" that "will help address the deep-seated conflict in our country and given that what we have, the unitary form of government or the unitary state, has failed us," said Dean Julio Teehankee of De La Salle University, the government panel point person on federalism.
Olalia said the NDFP was open to discussions on federalism.