Manila — Recent headlines in Manila have been telling a story: ''Marcos lashes his critics'' . . . ''Army men to sue journalists'' . . . and so on. The largely tame press here illustrates how Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos has engaged his opponents in a fresh show of strength.
In its harshest clampdown since martial law was lifted - officially - two years ago, the Marcos government has begun in the past several months to ''clean out'' militants in the Roman Catholic Church, and to suppress outspoken members of the press.
The timing is significant.
The president's critics say he was ''emboldened'' by warm greetings given him during his visit to Washington last September and the lack of any official protest from the Reagan administration over the severity of the latest crackdown in the Philippineo.
In addition, the expected renewal of the American-Filipino military bases agreement, due to expire in 1984, will likely be perceived as a new lease on life for his government. Talks are scheduled to start next month on whether and under what terms the United States will continue use of two strategically-important naval and air force bases on the main island of Luzon. The Philippines is hoping for an increased security package to help its defense program.
Yet, the feeling persists in this former American colony that Mr. Marcos's stern posturing is a sign of insecurity. Opposition has been mounting steadily against his 17-year rule, as economic conditions worsen. Marcos seems intent on neutralizing various forums of dissent, but it is questioned often here just how long he can contain growing discontent.
Not a few were caught by surprise when the military padlocked the offices of a popular tabloid in December, arrested its editor and staff, and threatened other journalists with libel suits or their jobs. The ''We Forum,'' says arrested editor and publisher Jose Burgos who now faces subversion charges and three libel suits, ''is not an out-and-out anti-administration newspaper.''
''But it just so happens the country's major daily newspapers do not print stories we consider legitimate,'' Burgos explained to this reporter. Before the closure, the tabloid ran a series of articles downgrading Marcos's much-acclaimed deeds as an anti-Japanese resistance fighter in World War II.
Still, many wondered what Marcos hoped to accomplish by stifling an already docile press. Major dailies, owned or managed by relatives or close associates of the Marcos family, exercise a large degree of self-censorship. A few exceptions have increasingly taken risks, printing articles critical of alleged military abuses or official corruption.
Even more unprecedented in this predominantly Catholic country has been a series of military raids on religious centers with arrests so far of an estimated 25 priests and nuns. The government promptly informed church officials that it will continue to take action against militants.
The traditionally conservative church reacted with a war of words. Jaime Cardinal Sin, the outspoken Roman Catholic archbishop of Manila, accused the government of arrogance and of defining ''almost anything (as) subversive.''
Leading an estimated 42 million Filipino Roman Catholics, about two-thirds of Asia's Catholic population, Cardinal Sin said, ''There is a climate of fear pervading our country'' because of which ''the people now prefer to 'think no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil.' '' ''The spirit of dissent - even peaceful dissent - has effectively been stifled. . . . Is it possible that we are becoming a nation of sheep?'' he added.
The church recognizes an increasing radicalization within its ranks. Up to 20 priests are believed to have joined the New People's Army, the communists' guerrilla organization active in poverty-stricken provinces.
At least two rounds of talks have been held between church and military authorities, resulting in guidelines for military action against church members. But both sides clashed on deeper issues, such as the root causes of dissent and abuse of human rights.
''The real issue is what induces the people in the church to act in ways which the government interprets as subversive,'' says former Sen. Jose Diokno, a longtime opponent of President Marcos.
The Philippines, a country highly dependent on exports of raw materials, is in its worst economic slump in many years. World prices and demand for its export commodities such as sugar, coconut oil, timber and copper, have fallen to near record-lows. The Filipino peso has depreciated against the dollar by about 12 percent from early last year. Wages have lagged behind the official 10 percent inflation. The government's development programs, such as aid to farmers , have had a tough time making an impact.
At present, the country has the heaviest debt burden - now exceeding $15 billion - among Asian borrowers. And under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Philippines is cutting its budget by 18 percent to try to halve the country's balance of payments deficit, which stood at a record $1. 14 billion last year.
Despite the lifting of martial law in 1981, after being in place for a decade , Marcos has not loosened the reins of government. He continues to rule by decree. He also excised the provision on presidential succession from the 1973 constitution and substituted unorthodox measures which included a secret decree and the creation of an executive committee with his powerful wife, Imelda, as a member. None of these steps have assuaged concern over the long-term political stability of his rule.