Davao, Philippines — A series of daring raids and ambushes against government forces in Mindanao have signaled the beginning of a new stage in guerrilla warfare for the southern Philippines.
This time the challenge to the Marcos regime is coming from communists rather than Muslim separatists.
The scale of their operations has risen swiftly from minor skirmishes in past years to major assaults on Army units and the temporary seizure of at least one good-sized town.
Even as the 11-year-old Muslim revolt has petered out, guerrillas of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines, have gained confidence and military sophistication. The government sees these rebels as its main security threat.
Philippine Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile recently estimated that the NPA has between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. Other estimates start at about 6,000.
In one part of Mindanao, the guerrillas took over a town in broad daylight. Elsewhere large Philippine Army patrols were ambushed. Several colonels of the Army have been killed in separate attacks that observers here say display an impressive intelligence system.
''We'll be hitting other parts of Mindanao soon,'' one Communist guerrilla leader predicted in an interview. ''In fact our raids in February were two months ahead of schedule.''
He added that the Communist Party leadership in Mindanao - the Philippines' second largest island, with a population of 11 million - only recently decided to push ahead with the big military operations.
The guerrilla leader interviewed by this correspondent called himself ''James.'' He is a front secretary of the Communist Party and has been in charge of several of the recent guerrilla operations. He has overall political and military responsibility for activities of the New People's Army (NPA) in one part of eastern Mindanao. He is 37, with longish, well-tended hair and is dressed in the modern Filipino national dress of blue jeans, sports shirt, and running shoes. He comes from a peasant family but went to an agricultural college, where he presumably picked up his workable English.
He started his political activities in the late 1960s with the Federation of Free Farmers, an agrarian reform movement that left a lasting impression on Philippine politics. Some federation leaders are now in the government. Others are in prison on subversion charges.
''I went underground when martial law was declared (in 1972),'' James recounts. ''First we concentrated on political work, then in 1976 we decided to organize military actions. Our first ambush was a success; 18 men took part, 14 of them armed. We captured eight rifles.''
How many of that group are still alive?
''Two,'' said James. ''Me and one other. He handles one of our guerrilla companies.''
The companies he speaks of are the most striking new development in insurgency here. A year ago, the NPA in Mindanao was operating in squads of 9 to 12 guerrillas. Now they move in units of 100 to 150.
In January, guerrillas from James's front moved into the town of Mabini, just over an hour's drive along a good road from Davao, the country's third largest city. They disarmed the paramilitary Philippine Constabulary, capturing 45 rifles, held political meetings, and then left without clashes or losses. The operation, James asserts, was a good example of growing popular support for the NPA.
''The night before the attack we had to move over 100 men to the outskirts of the town and keep them there undetected. We couldn't do that without local support. And local people helped plan the raid. Bus drivers going in and out of town helped with intelligence - we even had sympathizers in the local government.''
The willingness of so many people to take risks in helping the communist army is new, says James. He says the reason for it is simple: military abuses.
The area has been the scene of numerous government sweeps against the NPA. The modern Philippine equivalent of Vietnam's strategic hamlets - closely controlled settlements designed to deprive guerrillas of their mass base - were set up close by last year and have generated numerous complaints on military abuses. Actions like these, James claims, have politicized the people, forced them to choose sides - ''and they choose us.''
James's analysis coincides with that of many Western diplomats and locel oboervers who see military misbehavior as one of the key factors in the rise of the NPA.
After taking the town of Mabini, James says, the guerrillas withdrew to the hills above the town and waited for government reinforcements to arrive. They waited three weeks.
''The military thought we'd run. They didn't realize that we're now strong enough to take on large units,'' he explained. While they waited they trained 45 fresh recruits for the newly seized guns, then moved on.
The military professes some optimism about the change in rebel tactics. Larger NPA formations, they say, will be easier to detect and destroy. But Col. Dionisio Tan-Gatue, the Philippine Constabulary commander for Region 11, the area of eastern Mindanao that has seen much of the fighting, admits NPA casualties have so far been ''very minimal.''
But Colonel Tan-Gatue sees a more important advantage in the new situation. The bigger operations will strain the NPA's finances, he says. And the fighting has already increased the military's standing with local governments.
''The guerrillas expected the people to join them,'' he explains. ''But the opposite happened. Barangay captains (village heads) $K$And mayors asked for troops. We've never felt so wanted as we do today.''
James feels that the military has its own, big problems. ''The elite units can only operate in one area at a time. We'll spread them all over Mindanao. They don't know the terrain, and the people don't like them. And when we field our big units, we always have enough small groups around to keep them off balance.''
But the guerrillas will have some major problems of their own, James admits. Guns, in particular. Up to now the NPA has fought almost entirely with what they could capture or buy from the military. They have small units called ''sparrows'' which concentrate on seizing guns from soldiers. ''They're called that because sparrows blend into their surroundings so well,'' James explained. Now they will need a more regular supply of weapons than ever before.
They bought some AK-47 rifles last year from the Middle East. The amount, however, was little more than symbolic. The Philippine Communist Party and their army was originally rigidly Maoist in ideology, but is now moving away from that. They would, James says, even accept weapons from Moscow ''if there were no strings attached.''
The'Manila government says the NPA obtains support and finances through fear. Others, including markedly anticommunist Filipinos, admit grudgingly that NPA strength rests on something more than that.
This writer visited an area in eastern Mindanao that until recently had been controlled by the guerrillas. As we sat in an open-sided, rush-thatched meeting place in the middle of a dusty village, one of the villagers, Virgilio (not his real name), gave his version of the NPA. He was surrounded by a group of other villagers, who occasionally added comments.
''Communist Party cadres started coming to the village several years ago,'' he said. ''They behaved well, and were evidently educated people - young men and women.'' They gave practical advice about health and farming matters; medical teams - ''a real doctor and several nurses'' came in from time to time, he recalled.
''They also organized political meetings,'' Virgilio said, his voice dropping slightly. ''Secret meetings - about who owns land in the Philippines, and who has power.''
They collected money every month for the NPA. ''They came round each house - so no one else knows whether you give or n/t. Txey never force you.'' Usually he gave one or two pesos (10 to 20 cents) a month and when the army had its sweep through the area, Virgilio said, the village was just about to organize a collective farm.
The people in the village seem partly impressed by the dedication of the young communist cadres, and partly pleased by the attention they receive. But they also offered some more concrete reasons for supporting the guerrillas.
''The NPA tell people not to do evil things,'' says Virgilio. ''They don't like thieves or drunks or rustlers or gamblers or wife-beaters.'' When the villagers have a law-and-order problem, they raise it with the political cadre, he explained. The problem is discussed by the residents of the area, and the offender is given three warnings accompanied by ''education,'' Virgilio says. Offenders who persist in making trouble after three warnings are shot.
The disciplined life style offered by the NPA is very different from what the villagers say they have now.