Manila — Under pressure from Washington, Philippine President Corazon Aquino has put a limit on her turn-the-other-cheek policy toward communist insurgents. Mrs. Aquino formally offered a cease-fire and negotiations with the guerrillas yesterday, but did so only for a ``definite and unextendable period.''
The New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the underground Philippine Communist Party, has escalated attacks on Philippine soldiers since Aquino took power Feb. 26 after a relatively nonviolent, civilian-led military rebellion. (Estimates of NPA strength vary: The communist underground says it has 12,500 regulars and 20,000 local guerrillas, while US estimates put the NPA's combat strength at 16,000.)
``The insurgents continue to strike, hoping to recreate conditions conducive to successful armed struggle,'' Aquino stated at a University of the Philippines graduation ceremony.
``I shall interpret this kindly to mean that the message of peace has not filtered down to all combatants.''
Apparently frustrated that her calls for national reconciliation have not been heeded by the communists, Aquino threatened to use force against the guerrillas if they did not take up her cease-fire offer.
``If the peace initiative fails through no fault of the government's, it will not be the old, dispirited Army of [deposed President Ferdinand] Marcos that the insurgents will face,'' she said.
``It will be a new Army, as it is a new government that the insurgency must deal with now,'' she said. This new Army -- cleansed of many of its top brass and to be given better clothing and food -- will be ``more discriminating'' in its battle with the NPA, she added, and more protective of civilians.
Aquino, who so far has restrained the military in its fight against the NPA, said the communists ``should not expect me to leave my people and my soldiers defenseless. . . .''
``I am sure the communist leadership can read my mind as surely as I can read theirs.''
She said the communists would not have to give up their ``stern vision of a just society,'' but should work within a peaceful democracy to achieve their goal.
The Reagan administration has quietly urged top Philippine officials to step up the anti-insurgeny efforts rather than wait for guerrillas to come out of the hills because of promises of reform or because Marcos is gone.
Said one high-ranking US official: ``They're losing time by not having a plan to attack the insurgents. The NPA is trying to test the government and discredit Cory [Aquino].''
This official, who played a key role in Marcos's ouster, said there were three reasons for the NPA's existence:
Political alienation caused by Marcos.
``Only one of those has changed [the first],'' he added.
US officials believe Aquino should use both military and economic means to solve the insurgency problem, rather than just offer economic reforms and then possibly later use military attacks on the communists.
So far, say Aquino administration officials, no active leader of the Communist Party has shown interest in a cease-fire or talks with new government.
But there is some hope that communist (or at least leftist) leaders recently released from prison might be appointed to a commission that will draw up a new constitution. In declaring her provisional government March 25, Aquino said she would select 30 to 50 Filipinos in May to draft a new constitution for the nation.
In her speech yesterday, the President gave no time frame for her proposed cease-fire, but during the campaign leading up to the Feb. 7 presidential election, she promised a six-month period.
If guerrillas take her up on a truce, she faces another problem: If she grants amnesty to the insurgents, will she be able to follow through on trials against military leaders accused of abuses against civilians? Complaints about such a possible double standard have already surfaced within the Aquino military.