MANILA, Philippines?How about making it an all-encompassing, equal-opportunity amnesty?
Former House Speaker Jose de Venecia on Saturday said President Benigno Aquino?s order directing state prosecutors to drop criminal charges against the health workers collectively known as the ?Morong 43? should be extended to cover all political prisoners, whether communist rebels or mutinous soldiers.
According to De Venecia, a general amnesty would ?reduce many tensions? and enhance the Philippines? reputation as a ?role model? for liberal democracy in Asia.
The former congressman made the proposal a day after Mr. Aquino directed the justice department to withdraw the charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives against the health workers who were arrested while reportedly attending a seminar in a resthouse in Morong, Rizal, last February on suspicion of being communist rebels.
In a press conference that he called in his Makati home yesterday, De Venecia said the order to free the Morong 43 should be expanded into an ?omnibus? amnesty, in which all political detainees, whether of the extreme left or right, can partake.
?In all these peacemaking, you have to be inclusive, not exclusive or discriminatory. The key to coalition-building whether in Congress, or in unifying our country, is to give each and everyone a place under the sun, that no one feels he is left out?that is the key to peace,? De Venecia said.
The freeing of the Morong 43 should not be a one-shot deal but should become a template for an all-inclusive amnesty, which is already part of the peace policy of the new Aquino administration, he said.
Last October, Mr. Aquino issued Proclamation 75 granting amnesty to all officers, enlisted men and civilians involved in several failed uprisings against the Arroyo government, including the dismissed Navy junior officer and jailed Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.
Early this week, the Senate majority passed the amnesty proclamation. The House of Representatives is set to vote on it on Monday.
Proclamation 75 does not cover other rebellion cases such as those involving political detainees suspected of being communists.
369 political detainees
De Venecia said the amnesty can be extended even before the conclusion of a peace deal with communists, and would even serve to hasten the peace process.
The ?positive, constructive effects would be far more than if we exclude them. If we exclude them, they?ll all become militant rebels immediately,? he said.
According to Teddy Casiño, a Bayan Muna party-list House member, there are 369 political detainees as of Oct. 31, including the 359 who were jailed during the 9-year Arroyo administration.
Since Mr. Aquino became President in July, 13 have been detained because of alleged links to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People?s Army.
Final peace deal at hand
De Venecia said the prospect of ending the decades-old communist insurgency and the Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao was more likely under Mr. Aquino.
?If the economic and social program is genuine?well, I?m sure it?s genuine?it will yield results in the coming months, the prospect for a final peace agreement will be very high,? he said.
Early this month, the government and the communist rebels agreed to resume formal peace talks in Oslo, Norway, in February, after a five-year hiatus.
Negotiations are still ongoing on when parallel peace talks with the Muslim insurgents of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front are to resume.
De Venecia recalled how he, being House Speaker under President Fidel Ramos, spearheaded the amnesty proclamation for members of the Reformed Armed Forces Movement-Young Officers? Union led by then fugitive Col. Gregorio Honasan, who is now a senator.
?I remember it because when I spoke in Congress, I said, ?We offer you a truce of honor, a coalition among equals and peace among the brave,?? he recalled.
Ramos and De Venecia, along with then Batangas Rep. Eduardo Ermita?who became former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s executive secretary and presidential adviser on the peace process?also signed a peace agreement in 1996 with the main Muslim insurgency, the Moro National Liberation Front.
All three headed the now defunct Lakas-CMD party.
Ramos? predecessor, the late President Corazon Aquino, issued an amnesty for political prisoners in 1986. One of the beneficiaries was Jose Ma. Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The amnestied Sison soon left the country, seeking political asylum in The Netherlands.
Since leaving Congress, De Venecia has been traveling the world, delivering speeches on such topics as poverty alleviation, debt relief, trade barriers, and peaceful dialogues to end conflicts, especially in Asia.
He has just returned from Cambodia, where he attended the 10th anniversary and 6th general assembly of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (Icapp), which groups 89 ruling and opposition parties in Asia.
De Venecia is a founding chair of Icapp and founding president of the newly formed Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International, a regional platform for Asian centrist political parties, NGOs, academic and other groups.