IN RESPONSE to Malacañang's decision for the government to be open to peace talks with the New People's Army (NPA), Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he will allow the Philippine Army to engage in talks with lower ranking members of the rebel group.

During his State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Benigno Aquino III said he is ready to begin talks with rebel groups specifically citing the NPA and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

However, Gazmin said, the NPA particularly its leader Jose Maria Sison has opposed talks to the government. With this, Gazmin said as a softer approach he would allow community dialogues to be made between NPA leaders of lower ranks and elements of the military.

"We are willing to sit down and talk. It's necessary that there will be cessation of hostilities. Tigil putukan sabi ng Presidente, we will do that for as long as you come, sit down and let's talk. (But) as what they're saying in the papers the leaders of the NPA do not want to talk.

According to Jose Maria Sison, it was Satur Ocampo who said, they do not like the precondition of a ceasefire," Gazmin said Thursday during his first visit to the Eastern Mindanao Command with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Ricardo David.

But that doesn't mean that just because the top-rank leaders are against it, then localized peace negotiations will not be possible. Gazmin believes that lower ranking members will be more inclined to negotiate for peace, he said.

"I do not see any reason why they would stop me from asking their followers to sit down and talk if only to accomplish peace. It will be effective if all the followers would say we do not want to fight anymore; we want to sit down; we want to be farmers, we want to be fishermen; we want to have a peaceful life. I don't think it's impossible for us to have peace. Everything is possible for as long as there are two willing parties," Gazmin said in a press conference at Camp Apolinario in Panacan.

'OBL a success'

Meanwhile, David opposed taunts from the NPA that the previous administration's offense against the NPA, the Oblan Bantay Laya 1 and 2, had failed.

"The OBL, it has been a successful campaign plan of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In 1996 we have observed that there are about 25 or 26 thousand arms, firearms of the New People's Army, and then at the end of Bantay Laya 2 in June 30 (2010) it has gone down to 5000," David said.

This is a measure of success of the Oplan, he said. Moreso, he said, in around 20 provinces in Luzon, the problem of insurgency had already been turned over to the local government, meaning it has been reduced to being a police problem.

In the Davao Region, however, counter-insurgency remains a priority.

"Although the OBL is very successful but we still have some concerns with the rest of the 5000, particularly in the area of Davao, dito ang efforts namin. We will be issuing another campaign plan on January of 2011. In the meantime there will be some continuance and some guidance as far as those campaigns are concerned. We will have another instruction to our commanders in the fields, walang pangalan ito, kumbaga it's just a new order," David said.

David also said the new anti-insurgency plan under the Aquino administration will be implemented by January 2011.

Non-combat actions

Gazmin said under the Aquino administration, the government will intensify their non-combat anti-insurgency measures such as delivery of social services to communities.

"I was talking to the troops earlier, sinabi ko kailangan bumaba tayo makipag-usap tayo sa mga tao. Kailangan ipakita natin yung ating ginagawa at ipakita nating may serbisyo ang gobyerno. Iba na yung patakaran ng bagong gobyerno natin ngayon. Ipinakita (ng Presidente) kung anong daan ang gagamitin natin para sa ganoon ma-enganyo naman yung mga tao na bumaba at makipagtulungan sa hinahangad nating pagbabago," Gazmin said.

In response, Gazmin said, the men in the field themselves said the rebels have long wanted to negotiate for a return to the folds of the law so that they can attend to improving their means of livelihood.

He said, local talks will also be more appropriate since whatever programs will be offered those who opt for peace will be appropriate for what they need.

"Mate-trace out rin natin kung anong programa ang pwedeng ibigay na programa ang ibigay ng gobyerno sa iyo para ikaw ay bumaba na at mamuhay ng isang ordinaryong mamamayan. Kung lumaki ng lumaki ito, mawawalan ng followers itong leaders ng NPA," Gazmin said.

VFA

Gazmin also said there will just be a review on the Visiting Forces Agreement but this will not be stopped under the Aquino administration.

"(As an assessment) well the American Forces are helping us very tentatively in our fight against terrorism. They have all the equipment to help us, they are here to help us so far as information and training is concerned, but not involved in combat," Gazmin said.

Asked when the VFA would end, Gazmin said: "for as long as there are terrorists."

In this connection, Gazmin also said offenses against the Abu Sayyaf will continue.

"You cannot put a timeline on insurgency but to put this in phases. Phase 1, consolidate, pagnakuha mo na yung mga firearms, you go to Phase 2. Ang Abu Sayyaf, or whatever terrorist, you cannot put a timeline but we make it hard for them," Gazmin said.

As to the MILF, Gazmin said the President's directive that peace talks may start after Ramadan is still in the pipeline.

"We will not forget the offenses, we are willing to sit down on to talk about peace but the peace we long for is based on justice. We will continue in our internal security operations, to protect the populace from people who are disturbing our peaceful communities. The President has said his piece, he said we're willing to talk to accomplish peace, so we will talk. We'll sit down, we talk and hopefully we get to that level where we will have peace," Gazmin said.

The newly-appointed Defense Secretary and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff paid their first official visit to government troops based in Davao Region Thursday.

Commanders from the three Infantry Divisions (ID) in Eastern Mindanao were in attendance to welcome the two top officials. Among them were 4th ID commander Maj. Mario Chan, 6th ID commander Major Gen. Alcantara, and 10th ID commander Major Gen. Carlos Holganza.

After the honor guard presentation, Gazmin and David readily met with the commanders in a closed-door session. They also met with the rest of the troops in a no-holds barred "talk to men."

Major Gen. Carlos Holganza, commander of the 10th Infantry Division, said his seniors' directives for Davao Region were to continue the campaign against insurgency "with discipline and respect for human rights."

"From the Chief of Staff, he reminded us of our adherence to human rights. He's very very strict on that. He said we will win this campaign with discipline and human rights and I'm very very happy about that. The Secretary told us about the need for us to listen to the President. We are encouraging everybody, ang mga kasuldaluhan nga we will try for that and reach out to our misguided brothers so we could attain this peace," Holganza said. (Jade C. Zaldivar/Sunnex)