Reversals force Maoists to return to talks with Manila

MANILA, July 17 (Reuters) – The Philippines gave temporary immunity to nearly 100 communist rebels on Friday to allow them to canvass opinion on a peace deal with the government, but analysts said they saw no signs of any agreement soon.

The two sides have agreed to resume peace talks next month in Norway, five years after the negotiations broke down, and the government gave senior guerrilla leaders safe conduct passes to gather opinion from rank and file members.

“They are free from arrest,” Avelino Razon, the president’s peace adviser, told reporters on Thursday, adding: “The prospects for a return to the peace negotiating table are very good”.

The 4,000-member New People’s Army (NPA), the military arm of the Maoist-led rebels active in 69 of 81 provinces in the country, has been waging protracted guerrilla warfare for 40 years to overthrow the democratically elected government.

The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and driven away potential investments in the Southeast Asian country. The government has called the left-wing rebels the biggest threat to national security.

Despite the positive signs, analysts said chances for an agreement were bleak, especially since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo leaves office next May and any agreement would have to be followed up by the next government.

“There are no guarantees that the Arroyo administration will dedicate the necessary political will and resources to make the planned Oslo talks in August effectual,” Pete Troilo of the consultancy group Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PS&A) told Reuters.

In 2004, negotiations collapsed when the rebels blamed the government for a decision by the United States, Australia and some Western European states to blacklist the communist party and its leader, Jose Maria Sison, as terrorists.

However, the rebels, through its negotiating arm, the National Democratic Front, offered last month to return to peace talks.

The rebels said they have not totally abandoned the peace process even though the talks bogged down in 2004 and fighting continued in the countryside.

NO SUDDEN RUSH FOR TALKS

“There is no sudden rush by the NDF to resume the formal talks,” Fidel Agcaoili, a member of the rebel peace panel, told Reuters. “The NDF can negotiate with the government as a political entity regardless of who is sitting as the president.”

Other analysts said reversals on both political and military fronts had forced the rebels to agree to return to peace talks.

“If not for the brownie points she needs to improve her own image, the president does not really need the peace talks,” said Earl Parreno, an analyst from the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, adding the military was opposed to it.

The military suspects the rebels agreed to return to peace talks to rebuild their organisation after losses in the battlefield, said Lieutenant-Colonel Romeo Brawner, the military’s chief spokesman.

“We’re confident of substantially reducing threats from the communist rebels from a national security problem to a peace and order concern that could be handled by the police,” Brawner said, citing a 30-40 percent decline in rebel manpower and firepower from 2006 when a new counter-insurgency plan was adopted.

Parreno said the rebels could also be under tremendous pressure from the government in the Netherlands, where they are based, and from the international community to return to the negotiations being facilitated by Norway.

“If they will not go back to talks, they will be isolated,” Parreno said, adding Sison, the communist party founder and leader, is also facing charges in Dutch courts.

But, he believed that an internal struggle between leaders based in the Philippines and those in exile in the Netherlands could be hurting the movement more dramatically.

“They needed a respite because there’s a conflict within on strategy and tactics,” he said, adding the guerrillas on the ground wanted to push for a classical Maoist conflict, but those abroad wanted to experiment with new models, including elections.

“They need a peaceful environment to sort out things.” (Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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