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Manila wants quick end to communist rebellion

By Mynardo Macaraig

MANILA, January 19, 2011 (AFP) – The Philippine government said Wednesday it hoped to end a decades-long communist rebellion in three years after both sides agreed to peace talks, but analysts warned the insurgency would likely drag on.

At the end of preliminary discussions in Norway, President Benigno Aquino’s peace team and the communist National Democratic Front (NDF) agreed on Tuesday that formal talks would resume next month for the first time in six years.

“We are pleased with the developments in Oslo. Given the initial good faith gestures of both parties, we hope that the peace talks will achieve their avowed purpose,” Aquino’s spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told reporters in Manila.

Lead government negotiator Alexander Padilla said he was aiming for an accord to end one of Asia’s longest rebellions, which has claimed tens of thousand of lives, to be signed by 2014.

“If we cannot agree in three years, we cannot agree on anything,” Padilla told AFP by phone from Norway.

The communists, who have been waging a rebellion since 1969 and still have thousands of guerrillas roaming the mainly poor, rural areas of the Philippines, insisted they were genuine in wanting to finally broker a peace.

“We do not underestimate the difficulties (ahead) but we are willing to seize the opportunity,” NDF delegation head Luis Jalandoni told reporters in Oslo after the talks.

The communists’ goal had remained steadfast over the decades – to seize control of the country through an armed revolution.

A succession of Philippine leaders have pursued peace talks with the NDF and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, but all efforts have run aground.

The last talks were held in 2004, under then president Gloria Arroyo, with negotiations collapsing amid NDF demands that the communists be removed from international terrorist lists.

However in this week’s preliminary meetings, both sides agreed to meet for the formal talks in Oslo from February 15-21 without any preconditions.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said Aquino’s record popularity among ordinary Filipinos and the credibility of his negotiators — most are ex-human rights activists — were other reasons to believe the talks could succeed.

And with only about 4,700 fighters, the communists also realise they have little chance of major military victories, said Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

“The fact is that their struggle is getting them nowhere. That means their position is weak. They cannot claim any possibility of victory at any point of time.”

Nevertheless, he still gave the talks only a “50-50″ chance of achieving peace, saying the negotiations could easily break down over the traditional points of dispute such as economic and political policies.

Other analysts said the differences between the two sides were too great and that a collapse of the talks was almost inevitable.

“The bottom line here is there remain very intractable issues,” said Pete Troilo, Manila-based business intelligence director with Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a security research group.

Neither side was willing to make the major compromises needed for the negotiations to succeed, said Troilo, who advises foreign companies in the Philippines.

“There are very hardline factions within the NDF that will never agree to peace unless the Philippine government gives substantial concessions and that is never going to happen,” he warned.

Congressman Satur Ocampo, who served as an NDF negotiator in the first round of peace talks in the 1980s, warned that the communists remained staunchly opposed to Aquino’s global, market-oriented economic policies.

This would likely become the most contentious issue in the talks, he said.

“If the government will not open up to fundamental adjustments to its economic policies, then the NDF may cease negotiating and wait for the next administration,” said Ocampo.

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