Peace talks with Reds still on despite 'hiccup' in rebels' release

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 12 2016 09:06 AM | Updated as of Dec 12 2016 09:37 AM

MANILA - Peace negotiations with communist rebels will push through despite President Duterte's rejection of a demand by the Maoist-led rebels to free more prisoners as part of a ceasefire deal, Presidential Adviser Jesus Dureza said Monday.

Dureza insisted the release of political prisoners, which has proved a major stumbling block in peace talks between the National Democratic Front and previous administrations, is a "hiccup" that will be "eventually manageable."

"Iyung actions taken on the government side and iyung sinasabi din ng NDF ay itong mga ganitong hiccups o problema, these will all be eventually manageable. Hindi naman smooth always ang work for peace e," he told radio DZMM.

"Expected din na may mga ganoong obstacles, but we know that the goodwill between both sides and the peace talks is okay naman."

(The actions taken on the government side and the statements of the NDF indicated that these hiccups or problems, these will all be eventually manageable. The work for peace is not always smooth. We expect such obstacles, but we know that the goodwill between both side and the peace talks are okay.)

Before the resumption of peace negotiations in Oslo in August, four years after the collapse of the last attempt, Duterte let 22 rebel leaders out on bail, including senior guerrilla commanders Benito and Wilma Tiamzon.

In November, he also freed four elderly and sick prisoners on humanitarian grounds.

Rebel leaders, however, immediately demanded the release of 130 more rebels.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a visit to Camp Servillano S. Aquino in San Miguel, Tarlac, Sunday. Czar Dancel, Reuters

Duterte on Sunday slammed the NDF's demand, saying he had made enough concessions and was willing to let peace talks collapse if necessary.

"I wanted them to start the talks but they want me to free 130 more, so I told them, no, I cannot," he told troops at Camp Aquino in Tarlac.

"As a matter of fact, I conceded too much too soon. Now, it's up to them if they will terminate the peace talks. Let them terminate it. I have freed their leaders, what more do you ask of us? I am running out of cards."

Dureza said the President is still willing to free political prisoners, as evident in his plans to pardon elderly detainees. The communists, he said, must not demand for the release of political prisoners as a pre-condition to the peace talks.

"Sabi niya (Duterte), we will continue to release prisoners pero huwag namang gawing parang pre-condition... We know naman in peace negotiations, you don't put up pre-conditions on both sides," said Dureza.

(Duterte said we will continue to release prisoners but this should not be a pre-condition. We know that in peace negotiations, you don't put up pre-conditions on both sides.)

Since the rebellion erupted nearly five decades ago, it has killed about 40,000 people and stunted growth in resource-rich rural areas of the Philippines. The rebels' armed wing, New People's Army, is active in almost all but the Muslim majority provinces, and are particularly strong in the mining areas in the southern island of Mindanao.

Duterte earlier said violence between the two sides has declined in the last six months. The two sides have held two rounds of talks since August and plan to meet again early next year with the aim of agreeing on a set of political, economic and social reforms to address the rebellion within 12 months.

The rebels want farmlands to be distributed to landless farmers, the nationalization of industries and to share political power with the government.

About 500 people suspected to be rebels are in jail, which include two men who were convicted of killing the U.S. military adviser, Colonel James Rowe, in 1989. -- With a report from Reuters