MANILA, Feb 22 – The Philippine government and communist rebels waging one of the world\’s longest insurgencies are aiming to forge a peace pact within 18 months, the two sides said after holding landmark talks.
The parties released a joint statement late on Monday following the end of a week of negotiations in Norway in which they committed to try and sign a "comprehensive agreement" to end hostilities by June of next year.
"Our meetings were difficult, and at times fraught with what would seem to be insurmountable challenges," chief government negotiator Alex Padilla told reporters in Manila on Tuesday via a video conference from Oslo.
"The talks however were frank, candid, and held in a spirit of goodwill characterised by respect for one another\’s position."
The negotiations were the first between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) sides since 2004.
The communists have been waging a rebellion since 1969 and still have about 5,000 New People\’s Army guerrillas based in the mainly poor, rural areas of the Philippines.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, including dozens of rebels, civilians and security forces over the past few months.
Analysts said before the talks began that there was little chance of a quick end to the rebellion, with the communists determined to overhaul the country\’s economic model and railing against corruption by the nation\’s elite.
Padilla acknowledged that even he had begun the talks with a "sense of dread" that they would be the "beginning of a dead end".
"But we have taken the first step," Padilla said.
The next steps will include a range of lower-level working group meetings over the next few months to cover issues such as as social and economic reforms.
Political and economic reforms will be discussed in another working group.
The government said it would also "work on appropriate measures to effect the expeditious release" of 14 detained communist rebel leaders that the NDF has long demanded be freed.
The government said it would also consider releasing four other communists the NDF recently added to the list.
However it made no firm commitment on releasing any of them.
In a reciprocal "confidence-building" measure, the communists said they would take steps towards releasing an unspecified number of people they were holding as prisoners.
One of the key reasons the previous round of peace talks broke down six years ago was a demand by the communists that the government have them removed from US and European international blacklists of terrorist organisations.
However there was no mention of the terrorism issue in the joint statement, and Padilla said he believed it would not derail the talks.
"There is no update on the terror listing," he said. "No, it is not a hindrance now. I think the problem with the terror listing is with the US and other countries."
Another reason the talks fell apart in 2004 was the communists\’ distrust of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who vowed to crush the rebellion by the end of her term.
Her time in power ended in June last year with her military quest to extinguish the rebellion unfulfilled.
Her successor, President Benigno Aquino, immediately said he wanted to pursue peace talks with the communists.
He placed former human rights lawyers and other people deemed favourable by the communists on his peace negotiating panel.