MANILA: Philippine communist rebel leader Jose Maria Sison has expressed hopes of ending nearly three decades in exile under the new presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, a potentially explosive homecoming opposed by senior military figures.
Sison, 77, fled to Europe soon after peace talks failed in 1987 and has stayed abroad since, while one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies continued to claim thousands of lives.
“I will return to the Philippines if Duterte fulfills his promise to visit me,” the Netherlands-based Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder said in comments posted on his Facebook page late Wednesday. “The prospects (for peace talks) seem to be bright at the moment.”
Sison, a political science professor, established the party in December 1968 and it launched a guerrilla campaign three months later.
The rebellion has left at least 30,000 people dead, by official account.
The New People’s Army is believed to have fewer than 4,000 soldiers, down from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s, according to the military, however it retains support among the deeply poor in the rural Philippines.
Incumbent President Benigno Aquino III shelved peace talks in 2013, accusing the rebels of insincerity in efforts to achieve a political settlement.
The talks got bogged down after the communists demanded the release of all of their jailed comrades, which the Aquino government rejected.
Duterte, who was Sison’s student at a Manila university in the 1960s, is the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao. Some of the communists strongholds today are near Davao, and Duterte has maintained relations with them.
Last week, local television station ABS-CBN released footage of Duterte chatting with Sison via Skype on his laptop.
“I’m a socialist,” said Duterte, who won Monday’s election in a landslide.
The network said the chat took place shortly after communist rebels freed five police hostages last month in Davao.
Duterte signaled after Monday’s vote that he was ready to release some jailed rebels and restart peace negotiations.
Sison said in the comments posted on Facebook he had congratulated Duterte via an intermediary on his win and called for the resumption of peace talks, a ceasefire, the release of political prisoners, and the “arrest and trial of Aquino.”
Sison’s comments were a transcript of an interview he gave to Dubai’s Khaleej Times newspaper.
Sison said he hoped to return home after Duterte was sworn into office on June 30, but the communist leader added the new government must first take steps to ensure his personal safety.
“I will not dive into any situation in which the Duterte government is still unsettled and there are unwieldy elements… who violently oppose my homecoming,” he added.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a Duterte critic and former military rebel, warned last week that Duterte could face a coup if he shut down Congress.
Trillanes warned some in the military were “strongly averse” to Duterte’s long-standing ties with communists, and that the reaction “could be violent.”
Duterte may visit Sison in the Netherlands to push forward the peace process, but no schedule had been confirmed, his spokesman, Peter Laviña, told reporters in Davao on Thursday.
Lavina also said Duterte would consider communist figures for his cabinet.
“The country needs to unite. We need everyone’s help. There are plenty of talents within the nationalist and democratic movement as well as the underground CPP-NPA so we will see,” he said, referring to the political and military wings of the communist movement. AFP