UPDATES TO ADD RESPONSE
By Roy Ramos & Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (AA) – Philippines president in-waiting Rodrigo Duterte has extended an offer of cabinet posts to the communist party of the country, where a decades-old conflict with leftist rebels has killed tens of thousands.
The Philippine Star reported Tuesday that the outspoken mayor said the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) might have the opportunity to fill posts in the Department of Agrarian Reform, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
“I have kept open [these department] because they said they are the most oppressed. Those are the only departments I can concede to them [leftist groups], provided they are qualified educationally,” Duterte said at a press conference Monday.
Referring to the CPP’s armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA), he underlined, “when I reach my oath-taking... they must realize I am the government and I am the enemy but I offer my hand in peace and we can talk.”
In Duterte’s 22 years as mayor, southern Davao City transformed for being regarded as the Philippines’ “murder capital” to a major bustling city in the underdeveloped Mindanao island region.
The 71-year-old -- who imposed bans on public smoking, and the selling of alcohol and the operation of entertainment spots past midnight -- won last week’s election on a crime-fighting campaign.
Before the May 9 polls, Duterte had invited the CPP’s exiled founder -- Jose Maria Sison, his former professor at a Manila university -- back to the Philippines.
“Yes, he [Sison] is welcome. I am happy with the statement that he is coming home,” Duterte reiterated Monday. “I would very much want to talk to him about resolving the insurgency problem.”
Sison, 77, currently resides in the Netherlands, having fled to Europe after peace talks with the Philippine government failed in 1987.
Since March 1969, the NPA has been waging one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies, mainly in the poorest regions of the Philippines.
According to government figures, the conflict has claimed around 40,000 lives, including more than 3,000 in the last eight years alone.
Philippine authorities have tagged the rebels as notorious extortionists and blamed them for harassing banana, pineapple and rubber plantations, as well as poultry farms and mining outfits.
The military estimated that the number of NPA members has dropped from a peak of 26,000 in the 1980s to less than 4,000.
In 2010, outgoing President Benigno Aquino III revived peace talks with the CPP, but shelved them in 2013, accusing the rebels -- who demanded that detained comrades be freed -- of insincerity in efforts to achieve a political settlement.
Duterte is set to assume office June 30.
His offer to communist groups has drawn both praise and concern.
Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform think tank, said Tuesday that the “trust-building measure” could revitalize peace talks, news broadcaster ABS-CBN News reported.
He underlined that the four departments offered are "not crucial" and do not deal with issues such as national defense or foreign affairs, but rather community services that could test whether the CPP can cooperate with the president and the public.
Julio Teehankee, dean of De La Salle University's College of Liberal Arts in Manila, described that Duterte’s move could lead to efforts for a “truly socially inclusive coalition”.
"This is part of his campaign promise to form a unity government, also confidence building measure with the communist Left. This is really out of the box,” he told the ANC news network.
“There has never been a government in our history that has offered the communists to join a coalition," he added. "The question is will the appointments come before or after the negotiations resume."
Former education secretary Edilberto de Jesus, however, insisted that Duterte should have first consulted with other sectors about the matter, and that even a coalition that includes the CPP and NPA, the National Democratic Front, was “quite cautious in responding to this invitation”.
“They realize also that that process will be very contested,” ABS-CBN quoted him as saying. “You still have to deal with the Commission on Appointments," he underlined, referring to a congressional body with constitutional authority to confirm certain appointments by the president.
De Jesus added that while Duterte appears to have won the election by a landslide and nearly 40 percent of the votes, he could not ignore those who did not support his candidacy.
"He needs the 60 percent in order to have a successful governance. The task now is to unify the country," said. “The sooner he can do that, the sooner he will be able to make an impact on the problems that we are facing.”