''The communist New People's Army work like termites. ''Underneath, they gnaw at the very foundation of the ground we stand on. But we sometimes deceive ourselves into believing that we have them well under our control.''
The statement was made by a Philippine Army general in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, where the communist guerrillas' growing presence and armed strength have previously been shrugged off by the government-influenced news media as a manageable security problem.
But the big military offensive in Mindanao ordered last February by President Ferdinand Marcos indicates that the problem of communist insurgency in Mindanao may have gone a bit out of control. Additional troops, weapons, helicopters, and Navy ships were rushed to the eastern and northern Mindanao provinces after encounters between guerrillas and government troops. Within four weeks, the encounters had led to a death toll of about 100 soldiers, rebels, and civilians.
The military now has seven Army and Marine battalions in Mindanao, twice the force stationed in the region before last winter's counteroffensive.
The military showdown follows the failures of last year's Mindanao strategy. In towns where the New People's Army (NPA), which is the military arm of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, was alleged to have gained a strong foothold, villagers were summarily moved to designated village centers. The strategy was designed to cut all communication lines between villagers and guerrillas and to deprive the guerrillas of food and shelter.
But the ''grouping'' strategy did not succeed in Mindanao, as the NPA rebels seem to have won the sympathy and support of a considerable group of villagers.
With the new military offensive, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said that the resurgence of NPA activities would be quashed in a few months. President Marcos himself also warned sternly that the government is prepared to send more troops to Mindanao if the situation there demands it.
''At this critical stage, we ask our brother Filipinos for their unequivocal commitment to the cause of national unity,'' the President said at the annual review of the Philippine armed forces in late April. In the same address, Marcos disclosed that since January, 346 communist and Muslim rebels had been slain and 297 captured.
Apart from the NPA, the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) remains a security problem in Mindanao, although its activities have subsided somewhat. The government conflict with the MNLF, which reached its peak in the early 1970s, has abated, thanks to the slower flow of aid to the secessionists from militant Muslim states in the Middle East. Internal bickering among the MNLF's top leadership has also helped dilute the front's strength.
The successful inroads of the communist dissidents in Mindanao are due largely to the isolation of many of the island's towns and villages from the nation's economic benefits and from the government's general services.
Three-fourths of the region's provinces are heavily dependent on coconut exports, but since world prices for the commodity have remained in the doldrums, living standards in Mindanao have also deteriorated. But villagers have not found relief in the government since there is an almost total absence of services in the smaller towns. Access roads are virtually impassable, potable water remains a rare commodity, and villages remain in the dark as rural electrification has not reached them. The rebels have therefore been quick to move in and capitalize on the people's alienation.
The military and local officials now seem to pin their hopes for improving the Mindanao economy on the Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran (movement for livelihood and progress) or KKK. This heavily funded government project is designed to create small- and medium-scale enterprises to be owned and managed by community residents themselves. The KKK program has been introduced in coconut-growing areas in Mindanao where residents have been given soft loans for the intercropping of fruit trees and vegetables between coconut trees. It is hoped that income from the alternate crops could cushion the impact of the continuing depressed prices of coconuts.
But not a few cynics have said the KKK programs could be unwittingly trapped in the quagmire of bureaucratic red tape and official corruption that is widespread in the lower echelons of government. Until the central government in Manila succeeds in uplifting Mindanao's economy, the region's alienation will keep it a fertile ground for dissident activities.