Government chief peace negotiator (GRP) Silvestre Bello made a historic first by visiting one of the village strongholds of the rebel New People's Army (NPA) in Paquibato District, Davao City on Monday (Dec. 26) to attend a peace forum which also coincided with the 48th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Speaking before 8,000 rebel sympathizers and supporters, Bello shared the same optimism with CPP founding chair Jose Maria Sison who, in a video message, said the prospect of achieving peace under the Duterte government is brighter than any point in the rebel's almost five decades of armed rebellion.
The head of the GRP peace panel was accompanied by his undersecretary Joel Maglungsod and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mike Sueno.
Bello assured rebel leaders that some of the sickly and elderly political detainees would soon be released.
"It is just a matter of time. The president will keep his word," Bello said in the sidelines during a break in the program of the rebels.
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier announced he would order the release of elderly and sick detained rebels in time for Christmas for humanitarian reasons.
Presidential Adviser for Peace Process Jesus Dureza also confirmed that a directive has already been issued for the release of some 17 or 20 detained rebels.
"Let us just wait for the formal announcement of the president," Dureza earlier said.
Bello also explained that the next release of rebels for humanitarian reasons is not tied to the bilateral ceasefire agreement that the government is seeking to forge with the rebels.
The National Democratic Front, the political umbrella of the CPP and the NPA, has demanded the release of 434 detained rebel leaders and members as compliance to the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect of Human Rights and International Law (CARHRIL), which the two peace panels signed during the Ramos administration.
Bello however asked for a little more patience.
"There are some legal process that we have to comply before they can be released," he explained.
He said he will be meeting with the president on December 29 and will again bring up the matter.
Meanwhile, Bello, who is also labor secretary, agreed with Sison that a final peace deal will have to be signed very soon so that "this can be implemented under the Duterte administration."
A former human rights lawyer, Bello said it is time to end the war in the countryside for the sake of combatants and the communities affected by the war in the countryside.
He said the next round of talks that will be held in Rome, Italy would now focus on the crucial agenda of social and economic reforms.
"We have tapped the expertise of economists from the University of the Philippines to draft the economic reform agenda of the government which we will present on the negotiating table in Rome," Bello revealed.
At least two days have been dedicated for discussions on social and economic reforms during the five-day formal talks, which begin on January 19.
Source: Philippines Information Agency