MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government is delaying a resumption of peace talks with communist guerrillas to allow public consultations, an official said Thursday, adding that efforts to end one of Asia's longest rebellions were "now at the cusp of some major breakthroughs."
Presidential adviser Jesus Dureza said President Rodrigo Duterte ordered government negotiators to consult public and government groups about issues in the Norwegian-brokered negotiation, delaying its planned resumption. Duterte separately said the talks may resume next month.
"We are now at the cusp of some major breakthroughs in the peace talks, hence, the urgent need now to take deliberate steps to ensure that we do not falter," Dureza said, without elaborating. "Just and sustainable and lasting peace will happen only when our people understand and support these efforts."
Rebel leader Jose Maria Sison has said "back channel" talks have led both sides to agree to a preliminary "stand-down" accord on June 21, with the peace talks to resume on June 28 to June 30 in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
Philippine security officials, however, have opposed some rebel demands, including the release of jailed guerrillas, and want guarantees that the insurgents would comply with any cease-fire agreement.
"We've been had before by that stand-down, when they continued reclaiming villages that we have liberated," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters last week. "We may be the only ones standing down and not them."
The communist rebellion, which has raged since 1969, has left about 40,000 combatants and civilians dead. It has also stunted economic development, especially in the impoverished countryside where the military says a few thousand Maoist insurgents are still waging a guerrilla war.
When he took power in 2016, Duterte resumed peace talks with the guerrillas and granted concessions by appointing three left-wing activists to his Cabinet. But the cordial relations rapidly deteriorated when he protested continuing rebel assaults on troops and policemen, along with guerrilla extortion of mining firms and agricultural plantations.
Last year, Duterte canceled the talks with the guerrillas and signed an order declaring the rebel group a terrorist organization in a prelude to his government's petition to a Manila court in February to formally designate the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, as terrorist groups.
Washington has long blacklisted the rebel group as a terrorist organization.
Duterte said he has invited Sison, the founder of the communist party who has been in exile in the Dutch city of Utrecht for more than three decades, to return to the Philippines for 60 days in an effort to hasten the conclusion of the talks.
Dureza said the two sides would finalize an agreement on social and economic reforms when the talks resume and then tackle political and constitutional reforms before discussing the sensitive topic of ending the fighting and "disposition of forces." It's uncertain how long the complicated talks would take but Dureza said the Duterte administration was carefully moving to ensure its efforts would put a closure on the long-running insurrection.
"The almost 50 years of intermittent and oftentimes disrupted peace negotiations with the communist rebels across several presidencies need a close study for lessons to learn from to ensure that our last chance to put a dignified closure to the armed rebellion will not be squandered away," Dureza said.
This story has been corrected to fix day in first paragraph to Thursday.