SISON INSISTS ON ‘NEUTRAL’ VENUE The communist movement may just take advantage of the proposed resumption of peace talks with the government to recruit more rebels and retake barangays it had lost to the military, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said late Thursday. Lorenzana issued the warning after President Duterte said that the government may restart formal talks with the leftist rebels in July. Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding chair Jose Ma. Sison, meanwhile, said he is not confident about the prospect of the peace negotiations being held in Manila. Sison, who is also chief political consultant of the NDFP, stressed that the communist group is open to hold the formal talks in any neutral venue except the Philippines. He suggested either Oslo, Norway or Vietnam as venue for the peace negotiations. Sison, however, was optimistic of the pronouncements made by Mr. Duterte that formal talks will happen before the 60-day window the President gave lapses. “The peace talks shall have begun on June 28 in Oslo as far as the panels are concerned and as present plans indicate. That is close to July anyway but not in Manila,” Sison said. Sison said that if both parties agreed and followed the terms of the stand down agreement, he does not see any hindrance for the resumption of the formal talks. “The stand down agreement creates a favorable atmosphere for the resumption of the formal peace negotiations and the interim peace agreement to be signed in Oslo hopefully on June 28,” said Sison. In a speech in Cebu province, Mr. Duterte said he was in talks with Sison who is living in exile in The Hague, the Netherlands. “We will start the talks maybe in mid-July,” Duterte said. He did not elaborate. Lorenzana stressed that Sison should clarify what the “stand down” offer he means before the military could reciprocate such a move. “Let’s see what do they mean by stand down. Is it back to barracks for us because that is dangerous,” Lorenzana said. “We have been hit once by that stand-down when they continued operating in the barangays to regain their lost areas,” he added. “So let’s see, baka kami lang ang mag-stand down, sila hindi (because we might be the only ones who would stand down, while they do not)” Lorenzana added. Lorenzana said the defense department will closely coordinate with government negotiators before getting into any “stand-down” agreement with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP). “But they should also stand down on their build-up because we heard that they have some orders to their people to continue recruiting (and that) they want to get back their lost barangays,” he said. Sison said that formal peace negotiations between the government and the NDFP may start earlier than the date stated by Mr. Duterte on June 28 if both parties agree on the stand down and subsequently ink a ceasefire agreement. Lorenzana said he is open to any peace negotiation with any and all negotiations with communist rebels. During previous ceasefires, even during the holiday season, attacks and recruitment activities by NPA partisans were reported by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he said. On the other hand, the NPA also claimed that government troops continued combat operations in the guise of civil military missions in communist-infested areas. “Stand down means cease operations. Stand down for them might mean there would be no attacks but we suspect they will continue their recruitment. They also have to stop that if there is a stand-down,” he said. Lorenzana cited rebel documents showing the CPP-NDF-NPA’s alleged duplicity in “actually intensifying their expansion of their areas” during past ceasefires. “It is premature for the GRP or anyone to suggest that the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations be in the Philippines. Foreign neutral venue as mutually agreed upon in JASIG (Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantee) is the best,” he added. Sison also expressed fears that the peace negotiations are exposed to risks from saboteurs if held in Manila. “Philippines venue at this time would make the peace negotiations vulnerable to control by the GRP or to sabotage by ultra-reactionary elements,” he stressed. Earlier, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. said that holding the peace talks in Manila would contribute positively to the negotiations. Ending five years of impasse in the peace negotiations, the Duterte administration with the Royal Norwegian Government acting as a third-party facilitator, conducted its first round of peace talks with the NDF in Oslo from August 22 to 26, 2016. The second round of peace talks was also conducted in Oslo from October 6 to 10, 2016 while the third round of peace talks was conducted in Rome, Italy from January 19 to 25, 2017. However, the President then terminated the peace talks on February 4, 2017 after the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the CPP-NDFP, continued to launch atrocities against government troops and even civilians. Since 1986, the Philippine government has been trying to reach a peace deal with the leftist rebels but has failed to make any headway. The leftist rebellion began in 1969 and reached its peak in 1987 when it boasted 26,000 armed guerrillas. However, the movement has since dwindled due to differences in strategy and tactics and the arrests of many of its top leaders in the late 1980s. The government estimates the number of the armed rebels at around 3,700 as of the end of 2017.