Communist leader hopeful of ending exile

MANILA • Philippine communist rebel leader Jose Maria Sison has expressed hopes of ending nearly three decades in exile with the new presidency of Mr Rodrigo Duterte, a potentially explosive homecoming opposed by senior military figures.

Sison, now 77, fled to Europe soon after peace talks failed in 1987 and has stayed abroad since, while one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies continued to claim thousands of lives.

"I will return to the Philippines if Duterte fulfils his promise to visit me," the Netherlands-based Communist Party of the Philippines founder said in comments posted on his Facebook page late on Wednesday. "The prospects (for peace talks) seem to be bright at the moment," Sison added.

Sison, a political science professor, established the party in December 1968 and it launched a guerrilla campaign three months later, led by its New People's Army (NPA) armed wing. The rebellion has left at least 30,000 people dead.

The NPA is believed to have fewer than 4,000 soldiers, down from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s, said the military. However, it retains support among the deeply poor in the rural Philippines.

Incumbent President Benigno Aquino revived peace talks soon after taking office in 2010 but shelved them in 2013, accusing the rebels of insincerity in efforts to achieve a political settlement. The talks got bogged down after the communists demanded the release of scores of their jailed comrades, whom they described as "political prisoners".

Mr Duterte, who was Sison's student at a Manila university in the 1960s, is the long-time mayor of the southern city of Davao. Some of the communists' strongholds today are near Davao, and Mr Duterte has maintained relations with them.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2016, with the headline 'Communist leader hopeful of ending exile'. Print Edition | Subscribe