Manila's days of parades and protests

``You won't find the place has changed much,'' said the military attach'e, beaming down at me at an official reception. ``Did you see today's `Mr. and Ms.'?'' (an opposition weekly which spun off from a women's magazine after the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.), he asked. ``First they had President Marcos saying everything was OK, then an interview with yet another Catholic priest turned guerrilla. Then an opposition bloke denying he's embezzled party funds. Sound familiar?''

It did. In some ways the Philippines is in a rut. The same stories keep on recurring. But it is easy to forget that taken together, these stories are symptomatic of a continuing crisis here. The presidential succession is still unresolved; the radical left is still growing in strength and sympathy; and the middle-ground opposition is still disorganized.

Last week was a good illustration of these themes, a week of meetings, marches, and muted threats.

The week started with traffic snarled up by tanks -- a rehearsal for the June 12 Independence Day parade, and announcements that the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, was now operating in Manila. (In fact the NPA's armed city partisans have been in the city for some time, but that's another story).

These two events set the tone for the week. President Ferdinand Marcos's health is apparently improving, and he has become a little more visible. During a meeting last week he told visitors that ``only fighting in the streets'' would trigger the reimposition of martial law. This remark carried a note of menace. Some people, the President said, had urged him to redeclare emergency rule.

Independence Day was marked by a rare show of strength by the Armed Forces of the Philippines -- a parade by tanks and armored cars, a flyover by airforce fighters and helicopters.

Not everyone was impressed. ``Those planes won't fly again for six months,'' remarked the military attach'e. ``They've used up their allocation of fuel and spare parts.''

The parade also had its lighter moments: it was, after all, largely organized by the President's unpredictable wife, Imelda. A float depicting the eruption of the country's Mayon volcano almost caught fire. More bizarrely another part of the procession depicted the demonstrations that followed the Aquino murder -- an act still widely believed here to be the work of senior members of the government.

A few hundred yards away members of the radical left staged their own show of strength. Around 20,000 -- slightly less than the number reported to have watched the parade -- attempted to march on the United States Embassy. They were blocked by a mixed force of police, army, and special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams.

The ensuing standoff was a mixture of tension and humor. While the demonstration leaders negotiated with the police, a group of painters emerged from the crowd and painted radical slogans on the wall of Manila City Hall. When they had finished they turned to the crowd, bowed politely, and received a round of applause.

As a compromise between marchers and police, the SWAT teams -- with their bulletproof vests, helmets, and automatic rifles -- were moved back. They acknowledged the demonstrators' cheers with tight smiles.

``We were trained to fight, not move back,'' one said.

Some of the demonstrators had apparently received similar training.

At one point a well-drilled, tough-looking group of young men made a run at police lines, but were headed off by a march leader. They, too, reluctantly pulled back.

These events overshadowed a big convention called by one of the many middle-ground opposition groups. It was less convention than coronation: the United Nationalist Democratic Opposition declared its head, Salvador (Doy) Laurel, their candidate for the presidential elections. These are due in 1987, but may come earlier if the President's health or political game plan requires it.

The convention, held in a sports coliseum was an old-time political rally, one veteran observer remarked. About 10,000 people attended, some seemingly unsure why they were there but grateful for the free lunch of hamburgers and soft drinks.

The middle-ground opposition parties have undertaken to field a single candidate against President Marcos in the elections. But they are not sure whether Mr. Laurel will abide by this decision if he is not chosen. Some opposition leaders question Laurel's opposition credentials -- he did not break with Marcos until 1980.

``There are a lot of rumors that the Presidential palace prefers Doy to be the opposition candidate,'' said Eva Kalaw, leader of another opposition group. ``He would be the weakest opponent for Marcos.''

But all middle-ground parties will have to look left in the coming elections. The radical opposition -- which seems to share many of the Communist Party's aims, and sometime does not hide its sympathies for the underground -- is planning to contest local, and perhaps even presidential, elections.

Over the weekend the radicals' new umbrella organization, Bayan (an acronym for the Tagalog words meaning New Nationalist Alliance), held an organizing meeting in a rural area an hour's drive from Manila.

This corrsespondent commented on how quiet the place was. ``Yes but people say the NPA will be operating here by the end of the year,'' said one of the locals.

``What do you mean?'' asked another. ``They have a detachment a few kilometers from here.''

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