It all began in central Luzon, the sprawling rice granary of the Philippines. Just 12 years ago a small group of 60 dedicated Maoist guerrillas armed with 35 World War II-vintage rifles fired the opening shots in a ''people's war'' against the Philippine government.
Today the New People's Army (NPA) is a nationwide rebel force for the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Communist guerrillas or ''red fighters'' boast a total armed strength of 10,000 - of which 2,500 are hard-core regulars, active and mobile in 30 strategic guerrilla areas scattered across this archipelago. The Philippine insurgency is one of the few Asian communist insurgencies to actually be growing.
To get a firsthand look at just how the guerrillas have expanded their influence, this writer recently visited a guerrilla area located in the lush rain forest of Quezon province in southern Luzon. It took more than a day of trekking along secret pathways in the mountainous range to reach the NPA military camp. This trip and others to guerrilla areas, together with material from other communist sources, provides much of the information for this report.
The Philippine Defense Ministry maintains that the communist insurgency is a long way from overthrowing the -government of President Ferdinand Marcos. According to Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, the NPA armed strength is around 3,600 men with a mass base of 50,000 in the countryside. US diplomatic sources concur that the communist insurgents are far from victory. They cite limited firepower as one reason.
Still the New People's Army has grown steadily both in strength and influence despite the massive counter-insurgency campaign of the mid-1970s. For example, in the region visited by this writer, growing guerrilla strength led to the recent deployment of three Philippine Army battalions.
Guerrilla officers, soldiers, and civilians here were willing to discuss some of the techniques used to recruit and train new insurgents. It was in this communist base area that a month-long military training course recently took place. NPA regulars taught the villagers how to dismantle grenade launchers, M- 16s, and other arms seized during ambushes.
''It is taxing and dangerous,'' said an NPA guerrilla, who had a day of training consisting of running and dodging live bullets, crossing a wild river using a rope strung on two wooden posts. Inside the camp, villagers - old men, teen-age boys, and young women - were awed and fascinated at the NPA's show of force.
They touched the rifles, aimed, and fired into the wilderness. One village elder said, ''We must learn how to use a gun to protect us from the savage military,'' and he went on to allege that Philippine Constabulary soldiers had killed four innocent civilians during a rally in the nearby province of Camarines Norte last June.
The villagers said that soon they expect the military to turn their village into a free-fire zone. ''But we are not afraid, we are used to hardship,'' an old peasant said.
However, military exercises and training are only one aspect of the NPA's rigid schedule, cadres say. They are also involved in what they call ''agrarian revolution,'' a communist-style land reform program that calls for the reduction of land rents, stoppage of the usury commonly practiced by landlords and ''rich peasants,'' and actual distribution of land to the poorest farmers.
The NPA's campaign against what they call the feudal background of the Filipino peasantry is mainly carried out through agrarian reform, communist sources said.
The NPA says that in areas it controls agrarian reform has succeeded in reducing land rent by 50 percent, and farmworkers' wages have gone up by 100 to 150 percent, that is, from $1 to up to $2.50 per day.
The guerrillas say that by implementing successful agrarian reform, they can convince the rural masses of the difference between their politics and those of the Marcos government.
In terms of political work the NPA guerrillas pursue what they call ''social investigation and class analysis.'' In this, the lowest category of Filipino farmers is identified and protected from landlords and ''rich peasants,'' whose economic status in the villages has allowed them in the past to become natural opinion leaders. In this manner, rural mass organization insures the buildup of a strong political power base for the peasantry, communist sources say. Non-communists interpret this system as a process of segregating and penalizing people opposed to the NPA.
Peasant activists assigned to various committees and revolutionary organizations are then educated in local and national issues in a way that is designed to highlight the shortcomings of the government. This tests the level of peasant political awareness and commitment to the NPA way of seeing things.
The NPA guerrillas claim they are now in the advanced substage of the strategic defensive phase, which is their way of saying they are capable of launching bigger military offensives against the Philippine government's armed forces. In a recent show of strength, uprisings and raids on municipal halls were staged in various parts of the country.
Although President Ferdinand Marcos ended martial law last January, the growth of the communist insurgency appears to have speeded up under his regime. And the inability of the Marcos government to end corruption, poverty, and widespread unemployment has provided a fertile ground on which the NPA guerrillas are apparently building strength.
In many so-called insurgency areas such as Samar Island in the eastern Visayas, which is considered to be the NPA's strongest base, the government has found it necessary to increase troop strength from three battalions in 1979 to 12 battalions this year. Additional crack battalions were also deployed in Cagayan Valley in northern Luzon; in the Quezon and Bicol region in southern Luzon; and in Davao Province in western Mindanao, as well as in Bukidnon and neighboring provinces in northern Mindanao.Observers believe this to be a strong indication of the growing influence of the communist underground movement. However, the actual strength of the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines leadership profile - their organization and strategy - are guarded secrets known only to top communist leaders and to a lesser degree by the military. The NPA says its guerrilla fronts are located in 50 provinces out of a total of 73, comprising a total population of 12 million, half of whom it claims are under guerrilla influence (the total national population is 41.8 million). A guerrilla base may consist of a cluster of villages or hamlets under the NPA's consolidated control, while guerrilla zones are outlying areas where the guerrillas stage ambushes and raids against government troops. The NPA regular guerrillas are assigned in mobile squads, armed propaganda units, and other teams, all equipped with high-powered rifles. Arms and ammunition are captured in local operations against government troops and paramilitary forces.According to an underground newsletter ''Free Philippines News Service,'' the NPA last year staged 100 military actions and netted 1,000 assorted firearms. But no independent confirmation of these claims was available.The NPA guerrillas explain that while their theories on ''people's war'' strategy and tactics, rural base building, and agrarian revolution were drawn from China's liberation struggle under Mao Tse-tung, they have localized their application in the context of the many islanded character of the Philippines.''Unlike China, we have no Yenan (Mao's headquarters in intertior China from which he launched his revolution), but instead we have more than two dozen liquid guerrilla bases scattered across the country,'' NPA cadres said.The dispersal of NPA guerrilla units in many combat zones has compelled the Philippine Army to spread its forces thinly. With 60 percent of its total armed combatants deployed in the Muslim secessionist areas in the southern Philippines, the government units are forced to island-hop to quell the rebellious NPA. The Marcos government is fighting two revolutions: one against the NFP insurgents and the other against the Moro National Liberation Front, which has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the south for the past eight years.The Communist Party of the Philippines, which is responsible for the ideological direction of the NPA, stressed that the use of violence is based on revolutionary goals with the popular support of the people. They are known to assassinate two kinds of ''enemies,'' namely informers , and military troopers and paramilitary force elements accused of cattle rustling, extortion, and rape.If the NPA executes local officials and military troopers accused of corruption, the military is also charged with being even more cruel and indiscriminate in abusing the civilian population in insurgency areas.Asked how they liquidate their ''enemies,'' an NPA cadre said: ''We normally send three warnings, and if they persist in terrorizing the villagers, then we execute them.''The organizational structure of the CPP - from the -Central Committee and national organs to the basic territorial organizations in the regions, provinces, districts, and sections - operates on the basis of what the communists described as a principle of ''democratic centralism'' which is ''centralism based on democracy'' and is ''democracy guided by centralized leadership'' - a system understood only from within, the communists say.To match the increasing activity of NPA guerrillas in the countryside, the underground movement mobilized party cadres in the urban centers during the April national plebiscite for a French-style presidential system (further increasing Marcos's powers and paving the way for a strong-man type presidency) and the presidential election that followed in June. The cadres supported the boycott movement launched by antigovernment forces.The revolutionary antigovernment momentum that generated 40 rallies and demonstrations involving 200,000 people around the country earlier this year was partly the work of the National Democratic Front. This group, organized in 1973, is an alliance of underground organizations and groups advocating a national democratic line on Philippine revolution. Most of its members, particularly the CPP and the NPA, were outlawed when martial law was declared in 1972. The National Democratic Front is made up of workers, students, and low-income professionals. Lately, however, it has been attracting the attention of noncommunist groups from the middle class, the Roman Catholic Church, and the traditional moderate politicians who see no option for a social change under the present government. The front expects to create an antigovernment coalition composed partly of disgruntled political moderates who see no hope of weaning US support away from the Marcos government. Front leaders say there will be no monopoly of power by one or any of the political forces that compose the coalition. Horacio (Boy) Morales, former executive director of the Development Academy of the Philippines (a government-sponsored think tank) and a member of Marcos's economic staff, defected to the National Democratic Front in 1977. In his first press interview since his disappearance four years ago, Morales spoke with this correspondent.about his life in the underground. He discussed the formula for sharing power if and when a revolutionary coalition government is forged between the front and other anti-Marcos political forces.''We will follow a three-thirds formula composed of the front, the masses, and noncommunist forces which contributed to the overthrow of the present regime,'' Morales says.The moderates are apparently in a state of confusion and seem to see no middle course between support of President Marcos and cooperation with the radical left. Marcos's policy of ''unity and reconciliation'' attracts neither the radical left nor the moderates. But if the leftists and the noncommunist opposition eventually get together - and some political analysts say that is quite possible in the next year or two - it would provide a whole new dimension to Philippine politics.