MANILA (Reuters) – Seventeen communist guerrilla leaders in the Philippines, granted bail by the courts to attend peace talks next week in Norway, vowed on Friday to return home after the five-day negotiations rather than flee.
Seven weeks in office have earned President Rodrigo Duterte a reputation as an implacable foe of drug dealers, but he was elected in May on a promise to negotiate the end of two long-running insurgencies, by Muslims and communists.
“We will return home after the peace talks in Oslo,” Benito Tiamzon, the highest ranking leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines, told a news conference hours after he and his wife, Wilma, were freed from a police prison house.
“We were released from jail to take part in the peace talks and we are serious about it,” he added. “The negotiations in Oslo are only one part of the process and there are other talks happening in other venues.”
Talks brokered by Norway between the government and the Maoist-led rebels’ National Democratic Front stalled in 2012 over the government’s refusal to free communist leaders who had been in jail for decades.
Security forces feared the rebel leaders could take advantage of the peace talks to stay overseas, or use them as a pretext to consolidate their ranks and rebuild their guerrilla army.
In 1987, the founder of the communist party, Jose Maria Sison, went to the Netherlands months after being freed from nine years of detention, but never returned. He sought asylum in Utrecht and has lived there for nearly 30 years.
“This is the first and only time we have a president determined to push genuine reforms,” said Tiamzon, adding that this gave the communists confidence that current talks have better prospects to end nearly 50 years of conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.
He said the two sides hoped to negotiate a ceasefire in talks, which begin on Monday, and will discuss political, economic and constitutional reforms, among other issues.
Five rebel leaders still in detention hope to join the 17 traveling to Oslo for the talks. More than 500 political prisoners are still in detention, Muslim rebel leaders among them.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)