Filipino debate: would US intervene? Spreading communist insurgency raises issue of US military involvement

With communist insurgency growing throughout the Philippines, the question of whether the United States will ever intervene militarily here is coming under increasing discussion. Joe Dizon, a minister and a leader of a radical group opposed to the government of President Ferdinand Marcos asks, ``How likely is US military intervention in the Philippines. . . ?

``On a probability scale of 1 to 10, I'd probably say 9.9,'' he says.

His view coincides with that of the communist underground, which is convinced that US military intervention in the Philippines is only a few years away.

Not everyone shares this view. Some segments of the broad political spectrum here believe US military intervention is far from inevitable. Still, many feel the US has a role to play in the nation's current political and military crisis.

Moderate and conservative opposition groups here hope that the US can pressure President Marcos into major political and economic reforms.

Meanwhile the Philippines government says that it will consider invoking its mutual-defense agreement with the US, should foreign support for communist insurgency assume major proportions. At present the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines receives little in the way of external aid.

The communists feel the next three years will be crucial. They plan to accelerate their political and military activities.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines -- already weakened by factionalism, graft, and low morale -- may not be able to contain it. The left thinks the moderate opposition will be in no position to influence events. The underground Communist Party believes this could bring their forces into direct confrontation with the US.

``Given the deterioration that we envisage,'' said a Communist Party member, ``and given the strategic, political, and economic interests of the US in the region, a clash with the US is almost inevitable.''

Underground sources are quick to add that the clash would slow but not defeat their revolution.

Some well-placed sources at odds with the communists feel that this scenario is not implausible.

``I hope it doesn't come to that,'' said one. ``But if this country disintegrates to the point where most of it is in the hands of the communists, the choice would come down to out-and-out military intervention.''

Moderate opposition parties here disagree about most things. But one point on which they agree is that the US should intervene -- politically, not militarily. 3 ``If the US continues to back Marcos it will need to send in troops,'' says Ramon Mitra, a leader of the opposition Pilipino Democratic Party and possible presidential candidate.

``Of course, that would not achieve anything: This country will just be a second Vietnam. What the US needs to do is pressure Marcos to observe democratic practices -- create an environment in which Filipinos can choose their future leaders in a free and honest way.''

Mr. Mitra, who is known for his relatively pro-American sympathies, says the US is trying to do this ``but in a very ineffective manner.''

``They [the Americans] have the economic leverage, -- through their own aid and their influence in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund,'' Mitra says. ``But Marcos makes them promises of change, then gives minimum compliance. When I chide US officials here about this, they just say, `We can only do so much.' I'm not convinced.''

Joe Concepcion, a prominent businessman and founder of the citizens' electoral-watchdog body that played a major role in assuring relatively clean elections last year, is even more emphatic about the role the US should play.

Speaking of local elections scheduled for next year he says, ``Somehow it's only the US that can make Marcos move -- hold clean elections next year and in 1987 [the presidential race].

``Otherwise the elections will be as dirty as usual.'' 4 Opposition sources say they view the coming elections as a crucial test of Washington's will and ability to influence the Marcos regime.

US policy toward the Marcos government since the 1983 murder of Philippine opposition Benigno Aquino Jr. -- a combination of economic aid and admonitions to reform -- has been sustained by ``bipartisan consensus'' in Congress, says one high-level diplomatic source here.

US stakes in both the Philippines and the rest of southeast Asia are large. US air and naval facilities here are said to be virtually irreplaceable. Officials stress that the US is a Pacific power, and are all the more keen to emphasize this now that the Soviets have consolidated their position in Vietnam. Soviet warplanes, US officials say, are only ``80 minutes flight from Manila'' in the Vietnamese base at Cam Ranh Bay.

If insurgency reached the point where it threatened the survival of a Philippine government, therefore, Washington would probably come under enormous pressure, both external and internal, to try to save the regime.

The official US line at the moment, however, is that this day is unlikely to come. 6 Speaking of the current crisis a high-level diplomatic source said, ``People here are still convinced that the situation can be reversed. It will require a sustained and coherent effort, but it is far from irreversible.''

US policy, the source continued, is one of strengthening democratic institutions. And there is a slow but inexorable move in this direction, the source said.

Many Filipinos do not agree.

``The whole logic of the US line here is `reforms' that do not entail fundamental change. The more they try to reinforce the status quo the more the US plays into the hands of the CPP [Communist Party],'' says former Sen. Jose Diokno.

This outspoken critic of the US adds, ``Of course I'm not suggesting the US should try more radical reforms -- simply that they should keep their hands off.''

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