Philippine communist rebels who have been waging one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies closed the door on Thursday to further peace negotiations with the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison said the insurgent group would instead join moves to oust Duterte, who recently cancelled proposed back-channel negotiations with the rebels that were scheduled for this month.
“It is relatively easier and more productive for the NDFP to participate in the oust-Duterte movement and to prepare for peace negotiations with the prospective administration that replaces the Duterte regime,” Sison said in a statement from exile in the Netherlands.
He was referring to the movement’s political front, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
“The broad united front of patriotic and democratic forces has become strong enough to call for and cause the ouster of Duterte,” he said. “While the urban-based oust Duterte movement is growing, we and the people have to fight and defeat the offensives of the military and police.”
Told of Sison’s threat, Duterte said in the central island of Bohol: “If he doesn’t want to talk, so be it.”
His brief comment came after an equally short statement from his own spokesman, Harry Roque, who said that the communist leader’s statement was “spoken like a true terrorist.”
In a surprise announcement last week, the government said it had cancelled all back-channel talks with the CPP for the next three months and was reviewing all earlier peace initiatives with the communists.
This included the possibility of revoking an agreement giving top rebel officials immunity from arrests during negotiations.
Duterte, who describes himself as a leftist and was once a university student of Sison, opened talks with the rebels shortly after he won the presidency in 2016.
As part of confidence-building measures, he freed all jailed top CPP officials to join talks in Europe aimed at ending the communist rebellion, which had dragged on since 1969 and left thousands dead.
But he subsequently ended the negotiations, angered by the rebels’ continued attacks on government troops in the countryside. He later softened his stance and invited Sison to fly home to personally negotiate, an offer that the communist leader rejected for security reasons.
On Thursday, Sison accused Duterte of doublespeak, noting that the military has also continued its attacks on communist bases in far-flung areas.
He also questioned Duterte’s proclamation last year putting the CPP and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), on a list of terrorist organizations. The Duterte administration is also seeking a court order that would officially tag some 600 communist rebels as terrorists.
“These are definitely obstacles to the resumption of peace negotiations with Duterte regime,” he said.
With reporting from Karl Romano, in Dagupan, northern Philippines, and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, southern Philippines.