MANILA — Negotiators for the Philippine government and the Communist rebels are close to accord on a cease-fire and are likely to sign an agreement this week, the government announced Tuesday.
At the end of a grueling eight-hour meeting, government negotiator Ramon Mitra reported that an agreement is close but that the two sides will have to meet again today to work out details. Mitra said it is likely that an agreement will be signed Thursday.
The rebels reopened cease-fire talks with the government earlier Tuesday, three days after President Corazon Aquino gave the Communist leadership until Monday to reach an agreement to end the bloody 17-year insurgency or face all-out war.
Sources on both sides of the negotiating table have said that, throughout the five months of negotiations, Aquino has consistently been pushing them for a cease-fire signing Thursday, which is the birthday of her slain husband, former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr.
The president has offered the rebels a 30-day cease-fire, based mostly on recommendations from the armed forces, whose commanders believe that a longer cessation of hostilities would allow the Communist New People's Army to regroup and recruit fresh troops. The rebels responded earlier this month with a 100-day proposal.
Murder of Labor Leader
Two weeks ago, when negotiators for the two sides were on the verge of signing a compromise 60-day agreement, militant labor leader Rolando Olalia was murdered and the rebel leadership canceled what could have been a crucial meeting. The rebels' political arm, the National Democratic Front, said at the time that it no longer felt safe continuing the talks.
Aquino and her two negotiators, Agriculture Minister Mitra and Government Audit Director Teofisto Guingona, let it be known that they were "fed up" with the process of the peace talks, and the president recently announced that she is "ready to lead the war" against the armed insurgents.
Finally, amid an unprecedented political crisis in which Aquino asked for the resignations of her entire Cabinet and fired her hard-line defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, she moved against the leftists also. In her nationally broadcast statement Sunday, Aquino gave the rebels until the end of this month to agree to a cease-fire or face the full force of her military.
Deadline Spurred Talks
The deadline was largely seen as a major concession to Aquino's military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos. But the deadline also pushed the Communist leadership back to the bargaining table.
One leftist source, who asked not to be identified, said that the rebel negotiators are sincere about the cease-fire--a contention doubted privately by Aquino's military and by representatives on the negotiating panel. He added that the negotiators feel safer "moving around the city" now that Aquino and Ramos have neutralized Enrile and the Defense Ministry's internal security force, which they blame for Olalia's killing.
When the peace talks were suspended two weeks ago, the negotiators were at an impasse over the many definitions of what constitutes a "hostile act" that would violate the cease-fire.
The rebel leaders, for example, wanted the government to suspend all military purchases and receipt of American military aid during the cease-fire, while representatives of Ramos were pushing for a ban on the rebels' collection of "taxes" from businessmen and farmers in rebel-controlled areas.
Peace at Christmas
Enrile's ouster itself may have helped restart the talks. The tough defense minister had loudly and publicly warned Aquino that the sessions were merely "negotiations for war" and that no cease-fire could hold--a point similarly made by dozens of key military commanders throughout the country in recent interviews.
However, Enrile's replacement, Defense Minister Rafael Ileto, took a softer line on Aquino's five-month effort to gain a cease-fire in time for Christmas.
"Maybe we (the Defense Ministry) can relax our views in this matter, play along with it and join the team," Ileto told reporters Monday.
A top Ramos aide, who asked not to be named, was similarly optimistic about the military's approach to the reopening of the talks. When asked whether the current round of negotiations will work, he said: "Why not? Give peace a chance.
"Besides," he added: "Christmas is coming, and, in the Philippines, nobody fights during Christmas. Nobody does anything during Christmas."