Marcos faces an uncertain period as dissidence wells up

The press called it "the worst terror strike" in this capital in eight years of martial law. Bombs ripped through seven government and business offices Sept. 12, killing an American woman and injuring 33 others.

A similar series of well-coordinated bomb attacks occurred Aug. 22. The April 6th Liberation Movement, an underground group seeking the overthrow of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Is this the beginning of the end for Mr. Marcos, as the opposition claims? Is Mr. Marcos, now in office 15 years, another Iranian Shah about to tumble from power in an uprising of the people, as his opponents say?

Or, as the business establishment here believes, is President Marcos relatively secure in office for some years yet?

"Don't be deceived by the smiling Filipinos," advised the leading opposition figure, former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., in an interview. He noted that the term "running amok" stems from a Malay-Filipino term for going into a killing frenzy. He likened the Filipino to his carabao, or water buffalo, an animal that is normally placid and docile but that if sufficiently annoyed can become dangerous. "That is a national character trait. It is where many people mistake us."

(The government accuses Mr. Aquino of leading the terrorism in Manila from his exile in Boston. Mr. Aquino denies it. "I am no Arafat," he says, referring to the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.)

If there is an uprising, it will be a surprise to foreign observers here. At least until the recent bombings, the Marcos government had been relaxing its hold on the nation.

The press, television, and radio are largely owned by a relative of Mr. Marcos, a college classmate, and a former military aide. So it has been supportive of martial law. The media have a system of self-censorship. But in the last year or two, some newsmen have been testing the waters cautiously with more critical articles. One definitely negative newspaper, "We," has been sold freely by young peddlers at stop lights in this busy city of 6 million. An opposition paper still manages to get advertising in Cebu.

Filipinos enjoy a considerable degree of freedom of speech. This nation, noted one foreigner here, has an undisciplined society. It is not easily regimented. There is not the atmosphere of fear here that prevails in Eastern Europe or in some Latin American dictatorships.

One reason for the relatively relaxed atmosphere (at least before the bombings) is that this martial-law regime has not been notably cruel. But it remains authoritarian, despite the election of a National Assembly and of local officials, elections that many observers believe were manipulated in favor of the government. The President can and does issue decrees without congressional approval.

There are some political prisoners. (Mr. Aquino estimates 200. Others estimate a higher number.) Testifying to Congress earlier this year, two officials of the International League for Human Rights noted that most political detainees are union organizers, students, and slum dwellers who resisted forced relocation, as well as political activists and critics of the regime. They alleged: "Brutality by the military is widespread," noting various techniques of torture during interrogation. There also are reports of so-called "salvaging" -- government opponents being abducted and murdered, sometimes after torture and mutilation. This practice is said to be most prevalent in certain rural areas where Communist or Muslim insurgents operate.

The government has tried and dismissed some military personnel for such abuses and held hearings in several locations on the problem. The opinion of some outsiders here is that President Marcos disapproves of such violent treatment of political prisoners, though no one can say for certain. They believe the abuses are more likely the result of an undisciplined police or military officials, sometimes seeking revenge in local quarrels. Mr. Marcos has never ordered the execution of any opponent, as far as is known.

Whatever the case, no one ranks martial law here as coming anywhere near the severity of the rule of the Shah of IRan with his secret police, the Savak, and its torture chambers.

There are other differences from Iran.

Mr. and Mrs. Marcos, it is noted, are much more in touch with the Filipino people. They are probably popular in many rural areas. They are certainly supported strongly by the business establishment, though some businessmen think it is time for an end to martial law. Some observers believe that Marcos and his New Society Movement could even win a free election, though not by the large majority of recent "manipulated" elections.

Frost & Sullivan Inc., a New York consulting firm that specializes in political-risk forecasts, sees a 35 percent chance of a change in regime in the next 18 months.

"Opposition to the Marcos regime will be widespread," the firm's report says. "The regime's position will be more seriously threatened if the opposing forces can unify. . . . Over the next five years, the Marcos regime will have to overcome massive obstacles in order to remain in power. The most likely successors to Marcos -- a civilian caretaker government or military regime -- are likely to be favorably disposed to international business. However, it is questionable that they will be able to handle the country's massive economic problems while effectively opposing strong leftist and nationalist groups seeking to gain power."

The Marcos government certainly faces some problems. Perhaps the serious is a new crop of 500,000 to 600,000 youngsters entering the job market every year. If the economy does not provide sufficient employment for these youths, they could turn to more radical and violent means for seeking a better economic situation, one former diplomat warned.

Another danger is corruption -- the favoritism in government business dealings for enterprises owned by the Marcos family or cronies.

There is a wide gap between the rich and poor. The poorest 40 percent of households as of 1971 received only 12 percnt of national income, whereas the top 5 percent got 25 percent. Mercedes automobiles, walled estates, lavish office structures, and jewelry-bedecked women contrast painfully with enormous slums, serious malnutrition among children, and simple thatched nipa-palm huts with bamboo-stave frames.

Communist insurgency in central Luzon and elsewhere still smolders. The Muslim separatist movement continues to fight in central Mindanao and Sulu. These are an expensive burden to the nation.

Also, like many other developing countries, the Philippines suffers from inflation, an enlarged oil bill, and mounting debts. Unemployment is high; underemployment even higher. Inflation was 17 percent in July, down from 24 percent in the spring. The inflation rate could drop as low as 10 percent by year-end.

With a major devaluation of the peso in 1970 and the quadrupling of oil prices, the real income of Filipinos declined in the first half of the 1970s. But since 1975, real wages have probably just about been stable for most Filipinos. However, the more recent burst in oil prices has been another blow to living standards.Moreover, the nation is on an economic treadmill as a result of rapid population growth.

The Philippines is still heavily dependent on various commodities for export income. Lower copper, banana, and coconut oil prces have been hurting, while rising sugar prices are being welcomed.

On the other side, the Marcos regime has a number of factors going for it.

For one thing, it employs a large number of able technocrats to run the government. "By and large, they are doing pretty well," commented a close observer.

Further, private enterprise is vital and flexible. Government planners have considerable influence in the private sector. Though the economy has not grown as rapidly as Taiwan's or South Korea's, it has shown solid progress. The total output of goods and services rose some 6 percent a year during the 1970s, faster than the growth of the population.

The middle and upper classes now number about 7.5 million, according to Cesar C. Zalamea, president of the Philippine American Life Insurance Company, the nation's largest life insurer. His firm sells to this income group, and he figures it is growing about 10 percent a year (something like 750,000 people a year at present). That rate is fast enough to discourage discontent, he says. (Philippine American Life, almost wholly owned by the American International Group in New York, was one target of the Aug. 23 bombings along with Citibank, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and the Metropolitan Bank of Manila.)

Others here note that there is considerable "upward mobility" in society. The key, however, is education. It is not easy for those in the poorest of slums or rural barrios to afford high school or college education for their children. These higher institutions of learning charge tuition, though elementary school is free and compulsory. The hunger for education in the nation is strong and it has a high literacy rate.

The business establishment has spread beyond the several dozen families that tended to run the country in prewar days. "Before," recalls Mr. Zalamea, "if you weren't born with the right name, your chance of making it in business were about the same as my becoming the boxing champion of the world." In addition to the Marcos clique of favored businessmen, some entrepreneurs are becoming successful without government patronage.

Foreign films are generally welcome to the Philippines. Frost & Sullivan, the Wall Street Research firm, says it is "possible" there could be limits on repatriation of dividends or capital and "creeping expropriation" in response to economic pressures and political pressures from leftist or nationalistic sources. But foreign businessmen here do not seem overly worried about that.

Observers here see little chance of a military coup upsetting the Marcos government. The Armed Forces of the Philippines have increased in number from 60,000 to about 200,000 in the last eight years. Most of them are tied up fighting Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. Defense Minister Juan Ponce-Enrile and the deputy minister, Carmelo Barbero, are longtime associates of President Marcos, coming from the same Ilocano region in northern Luzon. A number of other high-ranking officers are personal friends, or even relatives. Some key military officers have benefited in business from their support of the Marcos government.

Another advantage for the Marcos government has been the many splits in the opposition. Only last month, however, a group of 72 moderate opposition politicians in Manila, representing eight parties, signed a covenant pledging themselves to pursue all peaceful means to end martial law and restore democratic freedoms. Ex-Senator Aquino has been striving to unite the divided opposition groups in the United States.

There is a small minority in the Roman Catholic hierarchy that challenges martial law in principle and speaks out against government or military abuses. But the majority of the clergy are conservative and supportive of the New Society. The Marcos regime poses no challenge to the Catholic faith, whereas the Shah was considered a threat by the mullahs in Iran.

In any election, the government will be able to point to some major accomplishments -- rural land reform, rural electrification and other programs to help those living in the country, a start on urban land reform (letting slum dwellers buy the property they live on), some progress in slum upgrading, an expansion of education, an end to the Wild WEst atmosphere that prevailed prior to martial law when so many people toted guns, sounder government finances, and so on.

Commented Washington SyCip, head of the SGV Group, Asia's largest accounting and management consulting conglomerate: "There are many abuses of martial law. But weighing the pluses and minuses as far as the economy is concerned, I don't think the economy would have survived without it. The government was like four horses going in different directions trying to pull a carriage. The political system was just unworkable."

With the US system of checks and balances and elections every two years, the Philippine Congress was unable to make necessary decisions concerning taxation, oil leases, and other important economic decisions, he recalled.

He maintained: "At different stages of development, different types of government are needed."

President Marcos has spoken of ending martial law as early as next year, and usually sets a deadline of 1984. But he intends to run for office then, and he also says that he might not end martial law if the economy was in bad shape or if there was no settlement in the Muslim rebellion in the souther Phippines.

The Moros, as the Muslim insurgents are known, have been fighting for independence throughout the 1970s. The conflict has caused some 50,000 deaths or injuries and dislocated hunreds of thousands from their homes. Peace does not seem in sight yet. Senator Aquino, after a visit with leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front in Damascus, Syria, reported them determined to carry on their rebellion.

The Maoist New People's Army also continues to harass government forces in the central part of Luzon and in Samar, a poor island. But they are too remote to be a threat to the government.

The urban guerrilas are more dangerous, however. The could discourage foreign investment and tourism as well as take lives. Early last month before the recent bombings, Mr. Aquino told a New York audience: "I have been told of plans for the launching of massive urban guerrilla warfare where buildings will be blown up, and corrupt presidential cronies and Cabinet members assassinated along with military officers who have engaged in wanton and rampant tortures of political prisoners."

However, even his opponents admit that President MArcos is nothing if not an astute politician. He could endure for years to come.

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