The capture on Saturday of top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People’s Army (NPA) dimmed hopes of reviving peace negotiations between the government and communist rebels that collapsed last year.
Malacañang on Sunday said the capture of Benito Tiamzon, his wife Wilma and five other CPP-NPA leaders does not preclude the resumption of peace talks but Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the CPP negotiating panel, said it impaired the negotiations.
The NPA is the armed wing of the CPP and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
Jalandoni condemned the arrest, saying the Tiamzons were covered by immunity guarantees.
It “most seriously prejudices the peace negotiations,” he added.
Jalandoni, in a statement on the insurgents’ website, called the arrests a “flagrant violation” of an immunity deal signed in 1995 when the latest peace talks began.
He said the arrest was illegal and called for the release of his comrades.
The NDFP also condemned the arrest.
“Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria are NDFP Consultants who have fulfilled and are fulfilling highly significant tasks in the peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines,” the group said in a statement.
But the Palace maintained that the arrest is legal.
In an interview aired over state-run radio dzRB, Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government peace panel believes that Tiamzon and his wife, who were arrested in Carcar, Cebu, are not covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantee (Jasig) signed with the CPP-National Democratic Front in 1995.
Lacierda said the Tiamzons in fact had violated several stipulations of JASIG and thus, are no longer covered by the immunity agreement.
“You will recall that both the NDF and the government panel agreed to a procedure in July 2011 to verify the true identities of several dozens alleged NDF consultants in the list of Jasig–protected individuals carrying aliases,” Lacierda said.
“But through no fault of government, the NDF failed to open their own files that purportedly contained the photos and true identities of the said NDF consultants,” he added.
Lacierda stressed that “this failure had the effect of rendering the JASIG inoperative for those using aliases and those who are not directly involved in the peace process.”
“If indeed Benito Tiamzon was listed under an alias, he is no longer covered by the Jasig,” he pointed out.
He said Wilma is not eligible for immunity.
“Wilma Austria Tiamzon jumped bail when she escaped from detention on December 26, 1989, when there were no peace talks, and six years before the JASIG came into effect. This makes her ineligible for Jasig protection, even assuming she was identified in the Jasig list by her real name,” Lacierda said.
The Palace official maintained that the rebels “only have themselves to blame for rendering the Jasig inoperative for most of their alleged consultants.”
“To sustain their claim to Jasig protection is ridiculous because that would mean they can wage war and violence against government and when caught, claim Jasig protection and expect to be released. It is even more outrageous considering that the peace negotiations have not moved for over a year now,” he added.
“And while we continue to be open to the resumption of the talks, last December, the CPP called for the overthrow of the Aquino government, saying they will just wait for a new administration before they go back to the table,” Lacierda said.
On Sunday, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles said government negotiators are still committed to return to the negotiating table.
Lacierda said the government is not the stumbling block to the resumption of peace talks.
“The arrest of Benito and Wilma Tiamzon does not change our basic stance that peace negotiations with the CPP/NPA can only proceed with a clear and time-bound agenda that provides some possibility of bringing us closer to a final peace agreement,” he said.
“We continue to hope that the leadership of CPP/NPA will come to the same conclusion sooner rather later.”
Lacierda also said any further talks should be “timebound” and not open-ended as in previous negotiations.
He lamented that it is the CPP-NPA-NDF that presented obstacles to the resumption of negotiations.
The peace talks collapsed in February 2013 when both parties could not agree on the initial agenda of the negotiations.
Government chief negotiator Alex Padilla said there’s a disconnect between the CPP members on the ground and the Utretch-based NDF members they are negotiating with.
The government has considered holding “localized” peace talks or discussions with the different CPP leaderships on the ground but the CPP rejected this.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd had hoped to reach a peace agreement with the communists by the end of his term in 2016.
Despite the collapse of the talks in 2013, the Aquino government revealed that in January, it had been working with the Norwegian government, which had brokered previous negotiations, to reopen the stalled talks.
Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the arrests would damage prospects for further talks since the rebels could demand the release of the Tiamzons as a precondition.
He said guerrillas may also mount retaliatory attacks.
Security and government officials gave no other details about the capture of the communist leaders, but military chief Emmanuel Bautista praised their arrest. He said the captured rebel leaders are facing a string of criminal charges.