By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: September 7, 2007
MANILA: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced Friday that she had signed a proclamation offering amnesty to any members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, who have been detained, charged or convicted of criminal acts “in pursuit of political beliefs.”
Officials said that the amnesty program could restart the stalled peace process between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the umbrella organization of various Filipino Communist groups led by the Communist Party. The talks stalled in 2004, when the Arroyo government rejected a rebel request to push the United States and the European Union to remove the New People’s Army from their lists of terrorist groups.
The negotiations suffered another setback last month when the Dutch police arrested Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party and the chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front during the negotiations, in Utrecht. Sison, who had lived in exile in the Netherlands since 1987, allegedly ordered the assassination of two former Communist rebels in the Philippines, Dutch prosecutors said.
Sison has denied the charge.
On Friday, a Dutch court heard defense arguments for dropping murder charges against Sison, and said it would rule next week on whether to continue the case, The Associated Press reported.
“There is an urgent need and expressed desire to extend amnesty” to Communist rebel groups, Arroyo said in a statement released Friday. She went on to say that she saw it “as an instrument of reconciliation, and as a path for their return to a peaceful, democratic, and pluralistic society.”
Arroyo said this week that an amnesty program would be a principal component of her goal to improve the economy and end the four-decade-old insurgency by the time she steps down in 2010.
Under the program, the government would spend about $10 million to assist the rebels in their transition to civilian life. “Amnesty centers” would be established around the country to process applications.
But on Friday the Communist Party spokesman, Gregoria Rosal, criticized the amnesty program as a “gimmick” that would be ignored and rejected by the members of the party, The Associated Press reported.
Past governments offered amnesty to Communist guerrillas but failed to end the insurgency, mainly because of the persistence of many of the conditions that have fueled the movement – poverty, landlessness, injustice.
Although communism began to take root here after World War II, it was only after Sison and a group of radical students ignited the party, in 1969, that the insurgency flourished. The New People’s Army grew especially quickly during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, with as many as 12,000 armed regulars by the time he was ousted in 1986.
The Communist movement suffered a self-inflicted setback in the late 1980s, when a purge to eliminate suspected government spies in its midst led to the killing and torture of hundreds of members. But today, the Maoists claim to have members and fighters in practically every Philippine province, starting offensives almost on a weekly basis. In recent years, favored targets of their attacks have been property owned by businesses that refuse to pay what the rebels call “revolutionary taxes.”
The military estimates the New People’s Army’s strength at 7,000 armed regulars spread across the archipelago. The authorities consider them the country’s main national security threat. Since 1969, more than 40,000 people – guerrillas, soldiers and civilians – have died in the conflict, according to the military.