Mindanao, Philippines — ''The communist party told us to go out and start an armed struggle,'' a guerrilla in the Philippines recalled recently, ''but what with?. . . We had just our bare hands and a few vague ideas about military strategy.''
The communist rebellion in this Asian island nation has become more organized in the last decade, causing concern in both Manila and Washington as the communist strength increases, especially in the southern island of Mindanao.
In the 1970s, Mindanao was the scene of a Muslim revolt, waged by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) seeking independence from the mainly-Catholic Philippines. But while that war is tapering off, the communist-led guerrillas of the New People's Army (the NPA, or the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines) has enlarged.
The 1980s may well be their decade for challenging the government of American-back Ferdinand Marcos.
Both movements began to expand around the same time in Mindanao, the turbulent days just before President Marcos' declaration of martial law in September 1972 (which was offically lifted in 1980). Although neither has posed a serious threat to the Marcos regime, their role in a possibly turbulant post-Marcos period is uncertain. And with important air and naval bases in the Philippines, the United States keeps close watch on any rise in rebellion.
Mindanao is the Philippines' last frontier - an island as big as Kentucky with a striking landscape of high hills, deep gorges and extinct volcanoes. Its population, now about 10 million, has increased fourfold since 1948, squeezing the original inhabitants, animist tribes and Muslims, back to the fringes of the land they once had to themselves.
Unlike other parts of the Philippines, the land is rich and largely free from typhoons. Forests are - or were - plentiful. Coal, nickel and some gold are mined here. Pineapple is grown for the American market, bananas for Japan; but these like another major agricultural export, copra, are in a deep decline right now. A new crop, palm oil looks more promising, however. But while the island suffers the economic ills of the rest of the country, an even bigger menace looms over it: insurgency.
Shortly before the state of emergency was declared in 1972, a small group of young, Christian political radicals took to the hills just outside Davao, the country's third largest city. Many of the would-be guerrillas were quickly hunted down. Since then, however, the NPA has grown. Four years ago, it had five fronts - military-political areas. Today they claim upwards of 14 out of a potential nationwide total of 33.
The guerrillas say, however, they are not planning major military activities for several years; instead they are concentrating on consolidating the last few years' gains, and trying to establish firm links with the MNLF.
The Moros, on the other hand, had no such problems getting established. They had a tradition of fighting the government in Manila, as the US found to its cost during the early years of American occupation at the beginning of the century. (The Colt-45 is said by some historians to have been developed to answer the US Army's need for a handgun that could stop a Moro warrior in his tracks.)
And the MNLF was generously supported by its co-religionists, notably Libya. At the height of the fighting in the mid-70s, over 60 percent of the Philippine armed forces are estimated to have been committed to the war. The human cost has been great: around 60,000 people, many of them civilians, are thought to have died.
MNLF fortunes began to wane, however, in the late 1970s. Libyan aid dropped off, and some reported help, first from revolutionary Iran, then Pakistan, did not fill the gap.
Then the movement split: today there are at least two main MNLF factions, the relatively radical group led by Nur Misuari, and a smaller group led by Hashim Salamat, a former Misuari lieutenant.
In the mid-70s, the standard guess was that the MNLF had 20,000 to 30,000 men. Today the government says they have about 8,000. The NPA, which watches the Muslims closely, says they have less.
''The Moros have about 5,000 fighters today,'' said an under-ground NPA spokesman. ''That's more than us, but the gap is closing fast. And our finances and political structures are much stronger.''
''When the Moros were at the height of the revolt, they were rather patronising to us,'' said the spokesman. ''They used to say 'you handle Luzon and the Visayas [the northern and central Philippines], we'll take Mindanao.' Now they're more willing to talk.''
The NPA can offer the MNLF advice in building better political structures. In return they would like help in obtaining weapons. ''The Moros could teach us a lot of tricks,'' said the NPA spokesman. ''They have centuries of experience in smuggling weapons into the island.''
perhaps by the mid-80s we'll have a formal agreement.''
The government tends to play down the threat of insurgency, but they have taken some drastic steps recently, among them ''grouping.'' In Vietnam it was called strategic hamlets: the relocation of peasants from outlying areas into militarily-supervised settlements. About 30,000 inhabitants of San Vicente, an allegedly NPA-influenced municipality in eastern Mindanao, were affected by grouping earlier this year.
As in Vietnam, the hamlets may have temporarily limited NPA activity, but the hardship and military abuses that reportedly accompanied the move have apparently lost rather than won hearts and minds.