Filipino communist rebels march during the celebration of the 42nd founding anniversary of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines) in Mount Diwata, Surigao del Sur in the southern Philippines December 26, 2010. REUTERS
DAVAO CITY, Philippines, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Maoist rebels in the Philippines have come back to peace negotiations not to end their four-decade insurgency but to ensure they do not lose support and relevance to a popular government.
The Maoists' demands and talk of a strategic stalemate show a negotiated peace is unlikely, despite government optimism a deal can be reached within its six-year term.
Analysts see the communists' return to the negotiating table as a tactical move aimed at regaining some popular support and erasing the terrorist label imposed by the United States and Europe, as the army looks to non-military methods to weaken them.
“In the history of communist rebellion in the country, they usually enter into talks when they are at their weakest political and military levels,” Earl Parreno, analyst at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, told Reuters.
Active in 69 of 80 provinces across the country, the New People's Army (NPA) has waged guerrilla war for more than 40 years. The conflict has killed 40,000 people and stunted economic growth in poor but resource-rich rural areas.
The two sides have agreed to resume formal peace talks in February next year in Oslo after an impasse of more than five years, following a Christmas ceasefire. [ID:nSGE6B206M]
“We will not enter into peace negotiations if we can't get anything out from it,” Jorge Madlos, spokesman for the Maoists' political arm, the National Democratic Front, told reporters at a ceremony marking the movement's 42nd anniversary.
“We are not looking forward for a power-sharing deal with this rotten system. If there should be peace talks, it must address the root causes of our country's social problems.”
Some 80 armed guerrillas, most of them in their teens and including a handful of women, paraded at the ricefield gathering of nearly 3,000 supporters on southern Mindanao island, waving placards that read “Support the peace talks” and “Long live the revolution”. [ID:nSGE6BP00E].
Muslim separatists based in Mindanao have also waged a four-decade insurgency against the government. The government is also trying to pursue peace talks with them, but efforts to resume negotiations have stalled. [ID:nSGE6AG054].
The NPA parade was held at a farming community at the foot of an east-coast mountain range, a five-hour drive from Davao City. Supporters feasted on roasted pig, a local delicacy, and the rebels sang the Internationale and other revolutionary songs.
The crowd was certainly passionate. But while the NPA remains active in poor rural areas, its strength has declined.
At the height of the insurgency in the mid-1980s, the NPA had more than 25,000 fighters as the brutality of dictator Ferdinand Marcos fuelled support among the poor. Its strength is now estimated at around 5,000 and the United States and some European nations have labelled it a terrorist organisation.
Madlos, a frail-looking 62 year-old based in Surigao, an impoverished mining and timber province on Mindanao, said the rebels wanted a strategic stalemate -- where neither side makes major gains and the insurgency persists -- within five years.
A veteran of more than 30 years of the insurgency also known as “Ka” (Comrade) Oris, Madlos told supporters the rebels had expanded their influence in the south, organised more bases, launched 250 tactical offensives and seized 200 weapons from soldiers in the last 12 months -- actions which analysts say calls into question what a new round of talks can achieve.
“The sheer amount of recent NPA violence suggests that the NPA is nowhere near close to laying down its arms,” consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments (PSA) said in a recent report.
PSA said it recorded 512 cases of NPA-related violence in the first nine months of 2010. In 2004 and 2005, when formal talks were last held, it recorded 406 and 516 incidents respectively.
“While the Aquino administration has expressed desire to negotiate without any precondition, there is no indication that the communists are willing to concede or capitulate on their demands,” the report said.
Parreno said the landslide victory of Benigno Aquino in the presidential election in May had caused serious rifts within the rebel movement, after most senior leaders made a mistake in openly supporting a losing candidate, Senator Manuel Villar.
The unpopularity of Aquino's predecessor had meant the rebels could stall talks over the past five years with no serious consequences among the rural population that underpins it.
“But Aquino is an entirely different story,” Parreno said.
“It would be difficult for them to get the people on their side under an immensely popular Aquino. At this stage, no amount of propaganda could possibly demonise the president, so they could only either swim or drown under the present situation.”