'Best reason' for Sison to come home: Bello says reform, interim peace deals can be signed in PH

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Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III (L) and Communist Party of the Philippines founding chairman Jose Maria Sison (R)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 4) — Communist leader Jose Maria Sison has said he will never return to the Philippines unless a reform agreement is sealed between the rebels and the government.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, the Cabinet official tasked to negotiate with Sison, has just suggested that the signing of much sought-after reform and peace agreements can be done in the country.

"We want that when he comes here, he will be prepared to sign a document – either the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms, or better, the IPA, which is the Interim Peace Agreement. That would be the best reason for him to come here," Bello said in an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source on Friday.

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier challenged Sison to come home for a one-on-one talk, but Sison said it would be "premature" to do so without an approved agreement on social and economic reforms in a "neutral venue abroad." The Communist Party of the Philippines, represented by the National Democratic Front has been pushing for reforms to address poverty, the lack of social justice, and other problems that they consider as the root of the five-decade armed conflict.

Sison said he is willing to meet with Duterte in a country near the Philippines – but only after the resumption of formal peace negotiations and the signing of an Interim Peace Agreement, which is seen to lead to the end of the communist insurgency.

"I would be putting the prospect of peace negotiations at risk if I make myself available for any kind of attack by officers of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and PNP (Philippine National Police) who think that they can end the revolutionary movement by getting rid of me," Sison, who is on self-exile in the Netherlands, said in a December 26 statement.

He also wants Norway to be back as third party facilitator in the talks.

Bello said all these issues will be negotiated during the informal talks between the peace panels of the government and the rebels, which is tentatively scheduled for the second week of January. He believes it's possible to hold the informal negotiations in the Philippines despite incessant concerns of the rebels that they could be arrested once they set foot in the country. Malacañang has promised this won't happen.

"What the President wants is for the talks to be here. In fairness, Professor Joma Sison and the NDF agreed – principally, theoretically, they agreed. But they said before they come here for the formal negotiations with Sison, they have to come up with some processes and mechanics on how he can come here, because remember, Professor Joma Sison is a refugee. He cannot just leave the Netherlands," Bello explained.

The government and the rebels are working on the possibility of getting back to the negotiating table. Duterte walked away from the talks in 2017 as both sides accused each other of ceasefire violations.

READ: How peace talks with communist rebels failed

Two years after, Duterte asked Bello to negotiate with Sison, but groundwork has been marred again by allegations of violations of the holiday truce.

Authorities said NPA fighters attacked government forces in Camarines Norte and Iloilo on December 23, 2019, leaving one soldier dead and six others wounded on the first day of the ceasefire. The NDF, however, said the rebels were just defending themselves from attacks initiated by the police and military.

CNN Philippines' Alyssa Rola contributed to this report.