Aging communist leader Sison eyes homecoming this year

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 21 2018 01:21 PM | Updated as of May 22 2018 09:40 AM

Exiled communist leader Jose Ma. Sison speaks to his wife, Julie De Lima, at their home in The Utrecht. Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

UTRECHT -- In one corner of this small second-floor apartment unit here are workstations with multiple computer monitors — one set for Jose Maria Sison and another for his wife.

From this working-class neighborhood by the Old Rhine river, thousands of kilometers away from home, Sison leads a revolutionary movement he began nearly half a century ago when he established the Communist Party of the Philippines.

At 79, he said he had learned to harness the power of the "digital system," thanks to his tech-savvy wife Julie De Lima, who introduced him to social media.

Facebook serves as his "barometer" of political events back in his home country where, he insists, the struggle is as relevant as before.

It allows him, he said, to reach out and influence more people as some sort of an online "newsmaker" through a technology not available to Lenin and other communist leaders in the past.

But it’s also where critics portray him as someone who has opted to enjoy life abroad while comrades do the actual battle back home.

"Of course, I would prefer to be with compatriots," he told ABS-CBN News. "It was not my choice to get political asylum here."

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CHARITY CASE

Sison described himself as a "recognized political refugee" but with no "legal admission" in The Netherlands where he has been stuck since 1987 when the Philippine government cancelled his passport.

"I have no residence but not even the Dutch government can kick me out here," he said.

But with no social benefits, he said he’s dependent on his wife, a Dutch resident, and constributions from friends for his upkeep.

He is regarded as a "private charity case" in a nearby university hospital where he was confined several times because of pneumonia. He also suffers from Sweet’s syndrome, a painful skin condition.

Confinement forced him to miss portions of the informal talks with a team of government negotiators led by Hernani Braganza here early this month.

During the interview with ABS-CBN News, Sison appeared occasionally short-winded, his wife periodically checking on him from the other end of their book-stacked, 75-square-meter flat.

Exiled communist leader Jose Ma. Sison is shown with his wife, Julie De Lima, at their home in The Utrecht. Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

HOMECOMING

President Rodrigo Duterte, his one-time student, has repeatedly asked him to return to the Philippines to continue peace negotiations.

But Sison said this would mean giving up the "advantages of negotiating in a foreign neutral venue," which is Norway.

Duterte’s volatile nature is also a factor: he could easily order the resumption of talks just as easily he could end them. He did so earlier following continued attacks by communist rebels on government troops despite ongoing negotiations.

Sison said he was "not absolutely against" returning to the Philippines but "at the proper time."

Asked if his homecoming could come within the year, he said: "Yes... I’ve always been optimistic."

An interim peace agreement, he said, is expected to be signed when formal talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines resume on June 28.

STAND-DOWN AGREEMENT

Both sides, he said, were expected to announce a stand-down agreement two weeks before that.

"So, by June 14, plantsado na (it's all ironed out)," he said. "Of course, I may be proven wrong because everything depends on that joint announcement... but I don’t see any problem because there may be some misunderstanding but they can be solved."

A copy of the stand-down agreement obtained by ABS-CBN News calls for a "temporary cessation of hostilities in which the contending armed units and personnel" of the 2 sides "stay where they are."

They will take "an active defense mode" but will "not commit any offensive action or operation against combatants and civilians."

An "as is where is" provision seeks to avoid "any kind of movement... which may be considered as a provocative and/or hostile act."

A member from each of the negotiating panels will serve as coordinators to "work on measures to prevent the escalation of hostilities that may arise from certain incidents."

"No retaliatory act shall be taken by either party," according to the draft agreement, which both sides hope to replace with a coordinated unilateral ceasefire later on.

SIGNAL

The wider interim peace accord is hinged on agreements now being ironed out by both sides on a ceasefire, amnesty proclamation, and major portions of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), which is considered the "heart and soul" of the peace negotiations.

The rebels are pushing for CASER to address the root causes of the armed struggle, with provisions on genuine agrarian reform and rural development, and nationalization of certain industries.

"I think within one round, we can finish CASER and that would be a signal for me to return to the Philippines," Sison said, noting that an agreement on political and constitutional reforms could also come soon afterward.

Life here Utretch could occasionally lead to boredom, Sison admitted, pointing to the river from across his apartment window where the view has a calming effect on him.

But home, he said, is still the Philippines.

"Maybe, as soon as I go down the airport, I’ll be smelling Philippine scents and hearing Philippine sounds," he said. "That would be a joy."