Philippine opposition bides its time

A vast crowd, with estimates ranging from an official 60,000 to several hundred thousand, accompanied Benigno Aquino's body Thursday from his home outside Manila to a Roman Catholic Church about a mile away.

The crowd, moving 20 abreast down a broad highway, was watched by thousands more.

The church was packed when mass was said for the slain opposition leader. The procession was the biggest display yet of public grief at the Aquino murder, and further proof of the profound way the Aug. 21 murder has shaken Filipino society. The government is on the defensive. In fact, it remains the prime suspect in many people's eyes.

But if the end is near for the Marcos regime, it does not seem to be coming from the people in the streets today. Nor from the official opposition.

The mourners displayed grief and bereavement, but not the sharp edge of anger that could lead to the physical overthrow of the government. They were quiet and respectful - at times an almost complete silence prevailed.Most people seemed resigned and, for many of them, hopes for change appear to have died along with Aquino.

The procession also underlined the lack of leadership, and perhaps even appeal, of the present opposition leaders. More people turned out spontaneously for Benigno Aquino dead than have ever turned out for a living oppositionist since 1972, when martial law was declared.

The opposition seems to grasp this. At today's procession, for example, a leader of one faction of the opposition pointed to the overflowing church. ''All it needs here is one person to stand up in front of them and say, 'Let's go,' '' he said.

Then he went home. He was not going to say it.

The main opposition leader of the moment, Salvador Laurel, does not want to confront the regime head on. He views himself as a possible contender, perhaps even successor, to the Marcos. He did not break with the regime until well after martial law and is still interested in reaching an accommodation with the government. Asked at a press conference if the murder of Aquino dashed once and for all any hopes of accommodation, he replied: ''No sacrifice should be too great for the country.''

Neither does the far left seem to present any immediate danger. The Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, see their fight spreading over years if not decades.

Their token presence at Thursday's procession -- small groups of young people with more political slogans on their banners and regular chants -- stood out in strong contrast to the fluidity and spontaneity of the rest of the crowd.

But if the external threats seem at the moment minimal, the regime is going through a quiet crisis. Some observers here, in fact, theorize that the Aquino killing was a by-product of this crisis.

The President announced early in August that he was going into seclusion ''to do some writing.'' The writing included a book. The explanation was not believed by many political observers. Earlier presidential writings are thought to have been written by the press secretary, Adrian Cristobal.

Marcos has long been rumored to be critically ill. The rumors have not been substantiated -- under the flamboyant surface of politics here there is a tough secretive core -- but they have not been satisfactorily discredited either. One rumor, circulated before Aquino returned, alleged Marcos was having a kidney transplant.

Aquino believed this, and that seems to have been one of the factors inducing him to return. The President's recent public appearances, usually brief or carefully controlled, have not dispelled the rumors.

Finally there are reports of something resembling a power struggle inside the military. The major winner seems to be Gen. Fabian Ver, chief of staff and a relative of Mr. Marcos. The loser apparently is another Marcos relative, Gen. Fidel Ramos, commander of the Philippine Constabulary.

Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile seems also to have lost ground. In recent weeks a number of Constabulary units have been disbanded, and several regional commands composed of army and police elements were put directly under General Ver's control. On Aug. 2 it was announced that the integrated national police was being place under the direct command of General Ver. Previously it had been held to be under the jurisdiction of General Ramos.

If the President is ill, General Ver would be in a good position to influence the succession: He now commands directly the bulk of the military and paramilitary forces in the country. Avsecom, the airport security troops in charge of protecting Mr. Aquino, are also under General Ver's control.

Veteran observers here express concern about this state of affairs.

''I'm very worried,' said one of them, a supporter of Marcos, ''that the President is losing his hold on the army.''

A more tangible sign of government nervousness may have occurred last Monday, the day after the Aquino killing.

Rumors of the imposition of emergency powers by the government were apparently not totally inaccurate. A well-informed source said Thursday that an instruction for the implementation of General Order 66 had been drafted Monday afternoon. The order called for the establishment of mobile checkpoints to control the flow of people into and out of the capital. Imposition of the order was blocked late Monday afternoon.

Such nervousness is felt to be out of character for the Marcos government; the most logical explanation, some observers suggest, is that there is a vacuum at the top.

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