Deadly storm warnings in the Pacific

LIN NEUMANN March 4 1985

Deadly storm warnings in the Pacific

LIN NEUMANN March 4 1985

Deadly storm warnings in the Pacific



The attack was swift, brutal and followed an increasingly familiar pattern. As a small group of students completed examinations at the Mindanao Medical Foundation College in the Philippines’ Davao City in January, three armed men burst into their classroom. They singled out one student, Norman Cango, pointed a .45-calibre automatic pistol at his head, then fired three times. Cango fell dead before his horrified classmates. None of them knew for sure why Cango had been selected as the target. Said one shaken classmate: “I didn’t attend classes for three weeks, I was so afraid. You don’t know what will happen next.”

Cango was only one of hundreds of people killed by death squads in the Philippines in recent months. His assassins were presumed to be members of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA). Such grisly encounters are a daily occurrence and are not limited to the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao, where Davao is situated. Rather, the guerrilla attacks and often brutal countermeasures by poorly disciplined and badly equipped government troops have created an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty about the nation’s fu-

ture throughout the Philippine archipelago.

Only a few years ago the NPA was considered little more than a rural nuisance. The movement was founded in 1969 by a handful of Filipino intellectuals on Luzon, the main northern island where Manila is located. Hiding in the rugged mountain regions north of the national capital, they vowed to wage a class struggle against the government of President Ferdinand Marcos. Since then, crippling poverty, deteriorating economic conditions and often brutal repression by the Marcos regime have helped to swell the NPA’S ranks to an estimated 12,000—active in all 72 of the nation’s provinces and in control of some 7,000 villages. Last month Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said that of 60 anti-Marcos factions working for the president’s overthrow, the NPA constituted the greatest danger. Agreed

one U.S. military analyst: “It has grown at a concerning rate. Their leadership—a group of several hundred hardbitten Marxist-Leninists—is very disciplined and quite able.”

Indeed, the NPA’S military and political successes have caused alarm far beyond the Philippines. Manila’s democratic allies in ASEAN—the Association of South East Asian Nations—fear the contagion of Communist insurgency may spread to their countries. And the Reagan administration in Washington, which maintains two critical military bases on Luzon—a naval facility at Subic Bay and an air force installation at Clark Field—has sent a steady stream of highlevel Pentagon and state department officials to Manila to assess the guerrilla movement and 1 to press Marcos quietly u to undertake political re“ forms. But while there I have been small im5 provements, most ana-

lysts conclude that it is too soon to determine whether or not the changes can halt the slide into anarchy. The Marcos government remains tainted with the murder of opposition politician Benigno Aquino in 1983 and blamed for economic mismanagement and political corruption.

But more than any other factor it is the nation’s armed forces, 105,000 strong, that have driven increasing numbers of moderate Filipinos to support the guerrillas. Responding to leftist violence, the military has launched crackdowns that often victimize innocent civilians. Said a Mindanao priest, one among many who will discuss the situation only on condition that their names not be used publicly: “All trust between the people and the authorities has disappeared.” Indeed, the acting military chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Fidel Ramos, has acknowledged that corruption and brutality have cost his forces the trust of Filipinos. At the same time, the forces have proven unable to mount an effective counteroffensive. According to Manila’s records, 799 troops and government officials were killed by rebels in the Davao area last year—more than three times the 1983 figure.

As it consolidates control over local government districts, known as barangays, the NPA creates its own councils which are virtually autonomous from Manila, its own political fronts and its own teams of assassins—called the Sparrows—to silence opponents. Its preliminary goal is to break down local government. Ultimately, its avowed aim is to bring the Manila government to “strategic stalemate” by generalized guerrilla conflict. Already, the strategy has been remarkably effective. In Davao the NPA has co-ordinated neighborhoods into rebel cells, where the guerrillas rule unimpeded and unopposed. Residents have set up barricades to keep police and troops out and they work under a selfimposed curfew. And there are signs that government control over the whole city is slipping dramatically. Policemen, visible symbols of attack for rebel gunmen, have virtually disappeared from the streets. The city council, with many of its members in hiding, often fails to raise a quorum for meetings.

To supporters of the Marcos government, the smouldering discontent inside Davao serves as a warning. Once a bustling and prosperous regional centre, the city now festers in economic stagnation as a result of the insurrection. Just 10 minutes from the central district stands the fetid slum of Agdao, where as many as 10 families share a single tinand-plywood hovel. Before the guerrillas began to organize, government corruption was rampant. Local residents lived in terror of random killings by gunmen of the police, security forces

and major business organizations. Reports of torture and beatings were commonplace. Barangay captain Wilfredo Baby Aquino—no relation to Benigno Aquino—cannot even enter his political domain without risking his life. Aquino, commander of the despised government paramilitary force known as the Civilian Home Defence Force (CHDF), has survived three attempts on his life.

In fact, no government official now dares venture into Agdao. Since Janu-

ary, 1984, 28 members of the CHDF brigade have been killed. The rest have resigned. “Nobody wants to do it anymore,” the 37-year-old Aquino explained recently, sitting in his familyowned Plaza Roman Massage Parlor and uneasily clutching a Thompson submachine-gun. Heavily guarded, Aquino leaves his bunker-like compound only at night. For their part, Davao’s residents have greeted the CHDF’s impotence with equanimity, if not applause. Said one taxi driver: “The NPAS are sometimes

good for the people. The abusers are being killed.” Still, many Davao residents lament the present state of affairs. “Davao used to be such a peaceful place,” a young woman remarked privately. “But no more. You’re just standing and talking when—bang—someone is shot. We’re so afraid now.”

The military has made some moves toward generating more trust among disaffected Filipinos. One popular move was the suspension of chief of staff Fabian Ver, who stands accused of complicity in the murder of Benigno Aquino in 1983. His replacement, Ramos, enjoys a reputation for integrity. But analysts note that Marcos, as the constitutional commander in chief, can veto any effort by Ramos to discipline troops or reorganize regional units. In addition, morale remains low among rank-and-file soldiers, who are poorly paid and badly equipped. Many troops patrol the countryside in civilian clothes because of a shortage of uniforms.

Defence Minister Enrile recently admitted that many officers are too preoccupied with gambling, prostitution and illegal cockfights to pursue the guerillas.Complained Enrile:“These guys are giving us trouble.”And, despite calls by Ramos and others for a “hearts and minds” approach to the insurgency, the policy has not been implemented nationwide. Davao’s regional commander, for one, Brig.-Gen. Jaime Echeverría, has instead employed a more unpopular method known as zoning—isolating neighborhoods and conducting houseto-house searches for subversives. “I would be happier if I did not have to resort to zoning,” Echeverría said. “But war is like that. You cannot make it sweet for everybody.”

Others have warned that the Philippines—if not at war, as Echeverría says —may be careening toward full-scale civil war. A U.S. Senate staff report issued last fall declared ominously, “If Marcos and his group cling to the reins of government by force of arms, there will be a vastly reduced chance for the restoration” of democracy. The study concluded that while the NPA did “not appear ready to mount a sustained nationwide offensive,” its increasing numbers present a real threat to stability.

Underground sources predict that within months assassination squads will be operating in the capital. By 1986 the NPA intends to stage nationwide general strikes and gain political control in more communities. And by 1990 it aims to produce a military standoff with the armed forces. If that scenario holds, pressure will mount on Marcos to relinquish power to moderate opposition forces. The alternative, Western observers and Filipino military spokesmen agree, may be full-throttle civil war.

-LIN NEUMANN in Manila.