WORLD

A war of vigilantes

BOB LEVIN March 30 1987
WORLD

A war of vigilantes

BOB LEVIN March 30 1987

A war of vigilantes

PHILIPPINES

In the mountain resort of Baguio, 210 km north of Manila, soldiers and civilians were rehearsing last week for graduation ceremonies of the Philippine Military Academy. The festivities, scheduled for the weekend, were to feature a speech by President Corazon Aquino as part of her ongoing effort to improve relations with the volatile military. But at 10 a.m. on Wednesday an explosion—some witnesses said two—suddenly ripped through the military academy grandstand in the area where Aquino was to stand. The blasts sent a concrete overhang crashing down on about 100 people. Four people—three military men and a civilian—died and 38 were injured.

Investigators said that the blast was apparently caused by a time bomb, although they refused to speculate on whether Aquino herself had been its intended target. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Military sources first blamed it on Communist guerrillas who have waged an 18-year campaign against the government. But intelligence sources later speculated that the bomb may have been planted by members of the Academy, an officers’ school regarded as a hotbed of right-wing criticism against Aquino’s government. The president has survived three coup attempts by dissident officers since the overthrow of strongman Ferdinand Marcos in February,

1986, and elements in the military continue to regard her as too soft in combatting the Communist campaign.

That campaign has escalated since a ceasefire expired last month. On the day before the academy explosion, 200 New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas ambushed a military patrol in Quezon province, south of Manila, killing 19 soldiers, the military reported. Later, a police chief was shot dead in a Manila suburb; army officials blamed that assault on guerrilla hit teams, known as “sparrow units” for their swift escapes after attacks. And at week’s end, an unknown gunman murdered a policeman in Santa Ana, the ninth member of the security forces to be killed in two weeks.

Even as the rebels were demonstrating their strength, Aquino was fuelling accusations of her own weakness. On March 16 the president ordered “immediate steps” to dismantle all paramilitary groups fighting the rebels, including the 70,000-man Civilian Home Defence Force, a military-controlled organization accused of human rights abuses. Aquino had promised over a year ago to disband the paramilitary groups, and the Philip-

pines’ new constitution, approved last month, expressly forbids them. Still, army officers were dismayed by Aquino’s announcement— and the following day the president’s office issued a “clarification.” Aquino, a spokesman said, had merely instructed officials to prepare a study on the possibility of phasing out such groups to comply with the constitution.

Aquino’s apparent retreat on the issue is a victory for the military hardliners who have encouraged the formation of vigilante groups nationwide. The vigilantes’ stronghold £ is in the Davao region on I Mindanao island. There,

0 supporters of a group

1 called Alsa Masa, or Upris-

2 ing of the People, claim that it is responsible for the surrender of nearly 10,000 NPA supporters and sympathizers since 1986. One Alsa Masa supporter, Lt.-Col. Franco Calida, sat recently in his Davao City office decorated with captured Communist flags and a photograph of macho movie actor Sylvester (Rambo) Stallone. “He is my idol,” Calida explained. Spinning the empty cylinder of a nickel-plated magnum revolver, he clicked the hammer six times and handed it to a fresh Alsa Masa recruit. “Now,” Calida said, “go kill some Communists.”

Davao City radio announcer Jun Parras Pala, a key figure for Alsa Masa and allied groups, proudly claims to be a student of Nazi propaganda techniques. In his on-air “war on communism,” Pala often announces the name of a village and warns residents that unless they join Alsa Masa they will be targeted by the vigilantes. He has even threatened priests and nuns. And after last week’s controversy over the paramilitary issue, he called reporters in Manila to announce that Alsa 1 Masa would not be dis| banded regardless of Aquino’s orders. “If the government orders the dismantling of Alsa Masa,” said Pala, “then we will fight them because they are Communist.” For Cory Aquino, those warnings are danger signals in an increasingly dangerous time.

-BOB LEVIN with LIN NEUMANN in Manila

LIN NEUMANN