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A spirit of defiance moves across the southern Philippines

By Peter TarrSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1983

Koronadal, Philippines

Six hundred miles south of Manila in Mindanao's lush rural province of South Cotabato, moderate opponents of the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos are beginning to speak out after more than a decade of public silence.

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They are doing so at some personal risk.

Here, as in many rural settings throughout the Philippines, the government rules with a firm hand. In 13 of South Cotabato's 17 towns, the particulars of daily life such as the funding and construction of schools, roads, and sanitary facilities, are controlled in large measure by mayors loyal to President Marcos's ruling New Society Movement (known by its Tagalog initials of KBL). Local police, who are members of the Integrated National Police Force, act at the behest of commanders whose allegiance is also with the Philippine President.

Shock waves of protest that have rumbled across the nation since the assassination last August of opposition leader Benigno ''Ninoy'' Aquino Jr. have been slow to arrive here. In Davao, a city 50 miles north of the provincial border, they arrived on Sept. 21, the widely commemorated 11th anniversary of the imposition of martial law. ''Yellow Fridays'' - rallies in memory of Aquino - have since been observed regularly on Davao's confetti-littered streets.

South Cotabato's first antigovernment protest did not occur until Dec. 1, more than three months after the assassination, and several days after nationwide celebrations of Aquino's 51st birthday.

In 95-degree heat, 7,000 people stood motionless for more than five hours at a run-down grandstand in Koronadal while a dozen speakers - including the late senator's brother, Agapito ''Butz'' Aquino - took turns lambasting the Philippine President. The town's opposition mayor, Ishmael Esuino, spoke forthrightly.

''Deep in your hearts you may fear that we are inviting trouble to this very peaceful place,'' he told the crowd.

''But when on Aug. 21, on making his first step on Philippine soil, our hero Senator Aquino was mercilessly shot, then we lost all tolerance - for the loss of our freedoms under martial law, the transfer of powers from civilian to military authority, the rigged elections, the graft and corruption. We have become indignant and will no longer mind the threats of arrests and detentions.''

The rally's featured speaker was ''Butz'' Aquino, who has become a leader of the Manila-based Justice for AquinoJustice for All (JAJA) movement.

Some local residents were not certain who he was - or for that matter, who his brother was. Others wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that have become standard among Manila's ''Aquinistas:'' ''I'm mortgaged to the IMF''; ''We love Marcos - Just Kidding''; ''Who killed my hero?''

Spontaneous rallies followed in the towns of Polomolok and Tupi, where several hundred people pledged allegiance to the JAJA credo of ''Truth, Freedom, Justice, and Democracy.'' And in General Santos, a port of 150,000 on Mindanao's south coast, 10,000 ignored advice from KBL politicians to stay away from the town's first JAJA-sponsored rally.

''I have been able to criticize President Marcos openly because I have relied on the people of Koronadal, not the military,'' Mayor Esuino explained later. ''When we build roads, for example, we use materials and labor donated by our people.''

The mayor said that prosperity was the key to the new spirit of defiance in his town. Many have prospered in recent years thanks to the success of the government's land reform program and high levels of agricultural productivity. Koronadal sits on a wide plain between low mountains that is rich with alluvial soils. The region's principal crops, yellow corn and rice, can be cultivated profitably on plots as small as one or two acres.

''Other towns in the province are poor and must rely on Marcos, the KBL, and the military,'' Esuino said. ''The position of their mayors is that we have to be 'practical.' The mayor of the next town, Polomolok, is an oppositionist, but he would not show his face at the rally for Ninoy (Aquino). He was afraid.''

The pressure on Esuino has been considerable. The mayor said an emissary from South Cotabato's powerful pro-Marcos assemblyman, Jose Sison, advised him that Sison would introduce a bill designed to divide Koronadal into two districts if antigovernment rallies were held. Esuino's bodyguard, a member of the police force, was ordered not to appear with him at the rally.