Talks soon between Aquino, communists

In one corner is the lady in yellow. In the other, the rebels in red. That's the square-off for formal talks soon to begin between Philippine President Corazon Aquino, who characteristically wears yellow, and the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Party leaders sent a secret message Thursday to President Aquino -- ``very cloak-and-dagger,'' said a top aide -- putting forth a negotiator high enough in party ranks to be acceptable to the government. A similiar communist offer in April failed when the proposed negotiator was considered to be a low cadre.

Ironically, the proposed Communist negotiator, Satur Ocampo, was once represented by Mrs. Aquino's executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, a former human rights lawyer, during Mr. Ocampo's arrest under former President Ferdinand Marcos. Soon after Aquino took power in February, Mr. Arroyo received a letter from his former client. ``You be good,'' it said.

This personal touch to the coming talks, however, belies the continued bloody war between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Communist Party's military arm, the New People's Army. On average, 11 rebels, soldiers, or civilians have been killed each day in fighting since Aquino took power three months ago. Under Marcos last year, the number was 12.

Eager to bring peace to a weary nation, Aquino has laid the groundwork to woo individual rebels out of the hills, while enticing the communist leadership to give up its armed struggle and become a legal party.

She reopened the political process, began a cleanup of the military, promised land reform, started to dismantle the Marcos ``crony'' businesses in the countryside, and offered jobs and amnesty to returning rebels. In one of her first acts, she released some 500 political prisoners, including two former Communist leaders.

Mr. Ocampo, a former journalist who escaped from the military last year, is presumed to be on the Communist Party central committee, says Mr. Arroyo. He may be on the five-man politburo, the body that Aquino wants to deal with directly. On Saturday, Aquino will name her representative to the talks.

Details about the meeting are secret. But even before such topics as ceasefire or the future of the United States military bases comes up, the two sides must agree on procedures for talks. That alone threatens the initiative.

In addition, military leaders are wary of communist sincerity. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said Thursday that the Communists are upgrading their political activities in Manila, weaving a ``fresh web of deception.'' He claimed they plan to ``subvert the state within.''

Reports of a power struggle within the Communist Party have not been confirmed, but the party's own propaganda cites criticism of party leadership for misreading the public mood that brought Aquino to power. The party's blunder in calling for a boycott of the Feb. 7 elections may have cost it some support.

Caught off guard in now resisting a popular, liberal leader, the party suggested that Aquino include it in a coalition. She rejected that.

``The most difficult thing in this game,'' says Aquino executive secretary Arroyo, ``is just getting people together.''

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