After years-long negotiations, the Philippine government and Muslim rebels have signed a treaty to end one of Asia's longest and deadliest rebellions. The move follows the arrest of two high-ranking guerrilla leaders.
Philippine authorities had prepared for this operation for months. On March 23, a joint team of army and police forces detained the two main leaders of the Communist rebel movement in the Southeast Asian nation. According to military sources, the chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), Benito Tiamzon, and his wife, Wilma Austria, were arrested in the central province of Cebu on charges of crimes against humanity, including multiple murders.
The 'New People's Army'
"The arrest of the party leaders is likely to deal a severe blow to the communist rebels," Philippine President Benigno Aquino said at a press conference on Monday. Since the late 1960s, the CPP, together with its military wing, the "New People's Army" (NPA), has been leading a guerrilla war against the federal government in Manila. The Maoist-dominated NPA is one of the oldest guerrilla movements in Asia and is designated by the EU as a terrorist organization since 2002.
Benito Tiamzon (L) and his wife Wilma Austria (C) were arrested on charges of crimes against humanity
Decades of fighting between government forces and communist rebels have already caused tens of thousands of deaths. Philippine security forces are now expecting the NPA to retaliate for the arrests. "The arrest of Tiamzon and Austria will not stop the people's war - the Filipino people are determined to continue armed resistance to enforce the national and social liberation," the CPP wrote on its website.
Jose Maria Sison, the founder and alleged leader of the CPP and NPA, has been living in exile since 1987 in the Netherlands. He recently announced that Tiamzon's capture would not have any impact on the revolutionary movement. But Ramon Casiple, director of the "Institute for Political and Electoral Reform" (IPER) in Manila, believes the arrest of the party's top leadership would boost Sison's position.
According to estimates, there are around 4,000 NPA guerrilla fighters spread over several provinces across the country. A weakened leadership of the NPA, however, could cause small combat groups to break away from the organization, warns Casiple.
Different Muslim rebel groups on the southern island of Mindanao have been fighting for autonomy or independence for more than four decades. But following 17 years of negotiations between the largest separatist groups and the government an agreement is now in sight.
Leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are set to sign a historic peace deal with Manila on March 27 designed to put an end to one of the longest and most violent insurgencies in Southeast Asia. However, splinter groups such as the "Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters" (BIFF) have so far been excluded from the negotiations and could still pose a threat to peace prospects on the island.
CPP under pressure
In the meantime, the Filipino government has said it welcomes new talks with the Communist party. "The sealing of the final peace pact between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will exert more pressure on the Communist Party of the Philippines to go back to the negotiating table," Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles on March 25.
Negotiations between the CPP and the government broke off last year. But Casiple believes that the latest developments have provided a new chance for peace: "A continuation of the peace talks and the signing of an agreement are more likely following the arrest of the party leaders. Their detention will strengthen the position of those CPP members who want to push negotiations forward."