A cease-fire between the government of President Corazon Aquino and the country's communist insurgents is set to begin, as scheduled, at noon today. Filipinos clearly were relieved and a bit surprised that the cease-fire would go into effect on time. Though the accord had been signed Nov. 27 - the birthday of President Aquino's late husband, Benigno Aquino Jr. - until almost midnight last night, a compromise over interpretation of specific points in the accord had not yet been reached. Today's date was chosen by the communist rebels to coincide with International Human Rights Day.
According to the agreement, the guns of the insurgency and the armed forces, which have been trained on one another for 17 years, will be stilled for the next 60 days while negotiators on both sides attempt to create a more lasting political settlement.
The compromise follows five long months of difficult, stop-and-go negotiation. Twice the talks were almost scuttled by well-timed acts, suspected by the National Democratic Front (NDF), a front organization for the Communist Party, to have been initiated by the military to scrap the talks. The first such event was the arrest of Rodolfo Salas, alleged chief of the Communist Party. The second was the murder of Rolando Olalia, a left-leaning labor leader who in August helped found the first above-ground leftist political party in some 40 years - the People's Party. But both times, the NDF went back to the table.
Then the cease-fire accord was signed. But scarcely had the ink dried on the documents when the military sought to confine the communist New People's Army to the hinterlands. Military patrols in the countryside, the Army said, would continue and soldiers would disarm any armed guerrillas they met. The NDF countered this, saying it was a violation of the accord's spirit and letter.
Satur Ocampo, the communists' chief negotiator said that ``the premise of the talks'' was that the rebels would not have to lay down their arms.
As a last resort (and one that is often used) Mr. Ocampo and Antonio Zumel, the other NDF negotiator, wrote an impassioned letter to President Aquino seeking her intervention. They said that if she did not get involved and uphold the agreement, ``the guns may not be stilled.''
Last night, after three days of arguing via the news media, both sides appeared on a television talk show to announce that ``the gray areas'' in the accord had finally been resolved - the sides had reached a compromise on interpretation.
They agreed that communist guerrillas may not bring their firearms into populated areas and that, should armed communist patrols meet armed military patrols in the hinterlands, ``neither side shall commit any hostile acts against the other in keeping with good faith.''
Police patrols, the two sides agreed, will be performed by local police forces and not by the military and they shall be aimed only at common criminials.
Gen. Eduardo Ermita, the armed forces deputy chief of staff, last night grudgingly declared that although the government has backed off on the threat to arrest and disarm guerrillas during the cease-fire, ``as a rule, the NPA [New People's Army] should avoid carrying firearms to avoid encounters.''
Whether good faith, which has been invoked by both sides at every turn of the talks, will successfully carry the cease-fire into substantive talks is anybody guess. The gray areas that still abound include illegal taxing by the rebels of businesses in the countryside and on the swift ``revolutionary justice'' meted out by the rebels for ``crimes against the people.'' But Filipinos are eager to spend their first Christmas with new-found freedom without the sound of guns.