Does history of Asian communists hold lesson for Filipino rebels? Aquino `bridge building' policy challenges their Maoist strategy

The question has been posed in both Washington and Asia: Is Philippine President Corazon Aquino ``too soft'' on Filipino communists?

Yet, any anxiety over her policy cannot be only on the anticommunist side, because the Aquino policy of ``building bridges'' with the left through negotiation is one of the most basic challenges to the strategic thinking of Asian communism in the last 60 years.

It was China's Mao Tse-tung who in the late 1920s and early '30s threw out Stalin's idea of openly cooperating with noncommunists to build a workers' revolution in the cities.

The lesson of Mao is that if you are a communist and come out in the open to bid for power, you risk arrest, execution, or assassination. Mao retreated to the countryside to build a peasant revolutionary army in relative security from Chiang Kai-shek's army and security police.

President Aquino's olive branch could force Filipino communist leaders to decide if Mao was right.

Up to now, it has largely been the Chinese Maoist strategy that Filipino communist rebels have adopted. That is no accident. Former President Ferdinand Marcos fought against communist organization in the labor unions and in the cities, so the Philippine insurgents are operating in the countryside.

More fundamentally, many Philippine communists are aware that Asian history has demonstrated that where communists are one day permitted to come into the open to infiltrate and organize city workers and factories, the next day they can be outlawed, arrested, or killed.

Both before and during Aquino's visit to the United States, American press reports cited the disquiet of some in the Reagan administration over Aquino's alleged ``softness.''

And Indonesia's veteran communist battler President Suharto is said to have expressed the same concern when Aquino visited Jakarta in late August.

Back in Manila, the rumor mill about possible coups rumbles whenever Defense Minister and former Marcos loyalist Juan Ponce Enrile criticizes rival members of the Aquino adminstration for blocking the military's efforts to fight communists.

The concern of Mr. Enrile and other critics of Aquino's approach is that the Philippine President's efforts for a peaceful settlement with insurgents will open the door for growing infiltration by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military arm, the 18,000-to-20,000-man New People's Army (NPA).

Filipino communists have a different concern that is partly shaped by a classic example of nearly 60 years ago: their own security and survival as a movement.

A growing communist labor movement in China left itself open to suppression by following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's 1927 orders to cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists.

Despite the presence of strong ``right wing'' groups in the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), the communists continued their coalition with the Kuomintang in hopes that they could gradually gain influence when the ``left wing'' of the Kuomintang prevailed.

These Russian-dominated Chinese communists were left utterly vulnerable when Chiang Kai-shek's ``right'' seized control of the entire Kuomintang. In the spring of 1927, communists by the thousands were arrested or killed in the streets of Shanghai.

Mao, who was then an up and coming young communist leader, learned a lasting lesson: No matter how sweet the talk of peace, build your base in isolated rural peasant areas. Whatever you do, keep your military force intact.

The Asian ``classroom'' continued to teach power-seeking communists the same lesson. Remembering it, agents for Vietnam's communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, killed off nationalist rivals before the rivals could kill his people.

Indonesia's communists learned the lesson too late. Confident that their alliance with left-leaning President Sukarno would open their way to power, they emerged in the early 1960s as the world's biggest open Communist Party in a noncommunist state.

Then in 1965 when the Army saw the communists ready to grab final power, it acted. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Sukarno was eased from power, and President Suharto rose to take his place.

The Philippines is not China -- nor is it Indonesia. Some say that in Filipino culture and nationalism there is more room for compromise than in Shanghai of the '20s or Jakarta of the 1960s.

Still, if warnings from President Suharto to President Aquino during their talks in August taught any lessons about the dangers of compromising with communists, that meeting must also have been a reminder for many a Filipino communist at home.

Communists in the Philippines also face dangers through compromise. For, as the rumor mill never ceases to remind, the Philippine military, whose leaders include Minister Enrile, is still powerful. The communist who comes out from hiding to work openly in front of the military's guns may not be entirely safe.

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