President Corazon Aquino announced today that the Philippines' communist guerrilla movement has named a fugitive former journalist as its representative for talks with the government on a cease-fire. She said she would name her own negotiators within two days.
The announcement at a news conference marking her 100th day in office was the first sign of movement toward a cease-fire between the more than 200,000-strong armed forces and at least 16,500 rebels of the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party.
Aquino issued a call for a six-month cease-fire soon after taking office in February, but the 17-year guerrilla war has continued, with each side accusing the other of perpetuating the fighting.
Aquino said Satur Ocampo, a former business editor of the Manila Times newspaper who escaped from military custody last year, had been designated by the Communist Party of the Philippines to undertake what she said would be "preliminary talks" on a cease-fire.
Government sources sought to play down expectations for the talks amid suggestions from the communist side that tough conditions for a truce would be posed.
In an interview yesterday, Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, indicated that the rebels are not much interested in a temporary cease-fire, which he said the military wanted as a "breather" to retrain, reorganize and consolidate its forces.
Instead, said Sison, who was released from prison soon after Aquino took power, the Communists want a "lasting cease-fire in connection with the formation of a coalition government." Sison said such a coalition would be one of the Communists' major conditions for agreeing to a lasting truce. Others, he said, would be the right to "maintain the integrity of the NPA as part of the Communist Party" and recognition of the NPA as part of a new "national revolutionary army" under the coalition government.
While Sison claims to retain only "moral influence" in the Communist Party and denies currently holding any position in it, communist sources said that he remains in touch with party members and that his views reflect party positions. Party literature has long forecast a coalition government with "national democratic" forces as a step toward establishment of a "people's democratic republic" in the Philippines.
Sison was arrested in 1977 and tried along with the original commander of the NPA, Bernabe Buscayno, and Ocampo for allegedly smuggling a shipload of Chinese weapons into the Philippines 10 years ago.
Ocampo, arrested in January 1976, was accused by the military of being a member of the central committee of the outlawed Communist Party. Taken under guard to the National Press Club in April 1985 to vote in its elections, he escaped and went underground. He has remained at large although Aquino released more than 500 political prisoners in March, including Sison and Buscayno.
At her news conference today, Aquino dodged a question on whether she would agree to a coalition government with the Communists. She said that for now, "the mere fact that they answered my call for peace talks is good enough for me." She added, "From there we will go on to other problems."
Last week, Political Affairs Minister Antonio Cuenco said Aquino had ruled out a coalition government as a condition for a cease-fire. He told reporters there was "no way" she would share her popular mandate with the Communists.
Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, who was one of Ocampo's defense lawyers, said after today's news conference that the talks initially would cover procedural matters. "Nobody's going to talk about conditions," he said. "We just want to put the two sides together."
The Communists reportedly had delayed responding to Aquino's appeal for talks because of confusion over how to deal with the Aquino government and a continuing debate among party leaders about a decision to boycott the country's Feb. 7 presidential election. The party now admits that move was a mistake because it isolated the Communists and their leftist allies from the popular revolt that eventually swept Aquino to power.
Sison acknowledged yesterday that "those who carried out the rigid boycott policy have already done some self-criticism." He said the error had been tactical rather than strategic and suggested that it was not grave enough to warrant a purge in the party. Manila newspapers have published unconfirmed reports that the party's current chairman, Rodolfo Salas, and secretary general, Rafael Baylosis, face ouster for having advocated the boycott.
In promoting the idea of a coalition government, Sison suggested that the NPA could become "a strength in reserve" for Aquino "in the face of an armed forces that she does not fully control." He also argued that giving the "revolutionary movement" a share of power would result in "a great deal of savings on military expenditures."
Even without a cease-fire, he said, talks with the government would be useful if only to open a "line of communication."