The gunman appeared out of nowhere on a crowded street in the northern Philippines city of Bangued last week. Then he opened up with a swath of gunfire, killing Rafael Blanco, the vice-governor of Abra province, and wounding his bodyguard and lawyer. At almost the same time, nearly 1,000 km to the south, guerrillas gunned down three soldiers and a civilian travelling in a jeep near the village of La Castellana in Negros Occidental province. Later, armed insurgents raided several farms owned by industrialist Eduardo Cojuangco, a close ally of President Ferdinand Marcos. Violent and extreme, it was an average week in the troubled Philippines.
The incidents, which military officials blamed on Communist death squads, brought to more than 4,500 the number of Filipinos who have died this year in fighting between government troops and members of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA). Espousing the violent overthrow of the Marcos
government, the rebels have become a major force in the country’s rapidly worsening political and economic crisis. Acknowledging that, Lt.-Gen. Fidel Ramos—the country’s top military officer until the reinstatement of Gen. Fabian Ver last week—described the NPA as “the foremost threat to the Philippines today.”
Tradition: Until recently, most analysts—and Marcos himself—considered the NPA part of a tradition of insurgency that has endured in the 7,100-island archipelago for centuries. Rebellions occurred under imperial Spain for almost 400 years, against U.S. forces after the United States won possession from Spain in 1898 and against Japanese occupiers during the Second World War. The NPA, founded in 1969 by Filipino intellectuals on the island of Luzon, is the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, committed to class struggle and radical economic change.
Initially, the rebels sought support among peasants and confined their
military action to occasional raids on isolated government outposts. But after the August, 1983, murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, which undermined the credibility of the Marcos regime, the rebellion gained momentum. Currently, it draws supporters from across a broad spectrum of Filipino society. Those include urban professionals who regard the NPA as a credible alternative to the Marcos regime and its failed economic and social policies. Said one senior Western intelligence analyst: “It is like Viet-
nam—the infrastructure goes and you don’t realize it for a long time.”
Threat: For a time, government officials responded to the NPA threat by downplaying the movement’s size and importance. Marcos himself recently said that the number of armed insurgents is still fewer than 9,000, although U.S. intelligence officials put the number at about 16,500. And despite repeated pledges by the government to initiate major reforms, Washington sources estimate that one
million Filipinos are active NPA supporters.
Following the acquittal of Ver and 25 others on charges of conspiring to kill Aquino, Marcos announced plans for a military reorganization involving the retirement or new assignment of 50 senior officers. The changes were a response to pressure from Washington and from “We Belong,” a military reform movement which blames the poor performance of government troops on an aged, top-heavy officer corps. But the first shakeup did not satisfy the reformers. Coast guard Commodore Brillante Ochoco, the only officer to denounce the reform movement, was promoted to head the navy.
Force: For their part, NPA leaders now claim a full-time guerrilla force of 12,000, with another 20,000 reserves operating in 58 of the country’s 73 provinces. Western analysts confirm that the NPA effectively controls at
least 20 per cent of the country’s villages, or barangays. The typical NPA member: young and impoverished in a society rigidly divided between a small landowning elite and a mass of chronically poor.
Raiders: The NPA has also turned against Marcos’s foreign supporters. In August about 50 guerrillas attacked an Australian farm training centre near the remote village of Catarman on the eastern island of Samar. The raiders destroyed equipment but did not harm the Australian instructors or the Filipinos studying modern farming methods. Later, a spokesman for the National Democratic Front, a broadbased political movement that embraces the NPA, criticized “all foreign aid projects which are being used by the regime to suppress the Filipino people’s democratic aspirations.”
The United States regards its former colony as a critical strategic out-
post in the Pacific and the South China Sea. A senior administration official recently expressed growing concern about the NPA, despite assurances from Manila that the insurgency is under control. U.S. officials say they are particularly worried about the future of American military installations—the vast Clark Air Force and Subic Bay naval bases located on the island of Luzon. Although NPA leaders have stated publicly that they do not intend to strike at American forces, rebel bands have demonstrated that the bases are vulnerable. In August, unchallenged by guards, a handful of insurgents set up camp less than two kilometres from Subic Bay’s main ammunition dump. A U.S. Senate aide, who toured both facilities, later reported that “Clark and Subic appear to be very vulnerable should the NPA shift tactics and begin to target U.S. bases.” The Clark Air Force Base is the
headquarters of three squadrons of the 13th U.S. Air Force, and Subic Bay is the main supply base of the Seventh Fleet. U.S. spokesmen deny that the administration’s main goal in the Philippines is simply to protect its bases. But, said one official, “if we were to lose them, the Soviets would have a stranglehold on oil shipments to Japan, Korea, Taiwan. And if the United States were seen retreating to Hawaii, we would cease to be seen as a credible Pacific power.” Added Representative Stephen Solarz (D-NY), chairman of the House Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee: “The Philippines could become another Vietnam—not in the sense of committing large numbers of American troops, but it could be another country lost to Communism.”
The rebels have armed themselves almost entirely with supplies captured from the military or bought with money extorted from businesses. Last Jan-
uary, when the Benguet Corp. gold mining company refused to pay $110,000 in so-called revolutionary taxes, guerrillas burned the company’s equipment. Other companies have reported paying more than $100,000 each year to the rebels.
U.S. studies report that the Soviet Union may be preparing to support the insurgents. A recent study prepared for the Senate select committee on intelligence concluded that, while the NPA remains an indigenous movement, its leaders soon may approach outside powers for the arms and supplies needed to begin a major assault. The Senate report said that the Soviet Union had recently enlarged its embassy in Manila and that Soviet officials have already made indirect contacts with the insurgents through Filipino labor unions.
For Washington, the outlook is discouraging. Declared Evelyn Colbert, a lecturer on Southeast Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington: “There are powerful forces within the country that would lend themselves to an NPA attempt to take over. The church is one. That could produce continuous political instability.”
Collapse: The U.S. Senate report contains an even starker prediction: the combined pressures of military insurgency, economic decline o and political unrest could lead in two or three years to the collapse of Filipino democracy. Unless the government introduces major changes soon, said Senator David Durenberger, who heads the intelligence panel, “democracy in the Philippines is doomed.” Added Richard Kessler, a Philippines expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment: “The more we support Marcos, the better the chance of a Communist takeover.”
That growing danger was clear last month when thousands of demonstrators gathered in a church plaza at Escalante, in Negros Occidental, the heart of the nation’s ailing sugar industry, to mourn 27 peasants killed by government troops during a demonstration. Amid chants of “Give us Guns,” the 12-year-son of a sugar worker said quietly, “I bring you Red and revolutionary greetings.”
-ANN FINLAYSON with MARCI MCDONALD in Washington and LIN NEUMANN in Manila
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