Marcos turns attention and guns on communists

The communist rebel movement in the Philippines is no longer a political football. Philippine government troops are stepping up their largest offensive ever against the rebel New People's Army (NPA), the military arm of the nation's outlawed Communist Party.

The order to hit the NPA and hit it hard came directly from President Ferdinand Marcos, who admits that the movement is a serious threat to national security. Mr. Marcos had long used the activities of the NPA to his political advantage. He had played up its threat to law and order when justifying his authoritarianism, and belittled it when citing the achievements of his 19-year rule.

The government operation against the NPA, which started last month, is concentrated in the mountains of central and northern Luzon, the nation's largest and most populous region. It is a reaction to a significant escalation of activity by the rebels, whose slow but steady growth over the past 15 years has spawned a network of sympathizers that extends from the remotest islands in the southern Philippines to the hill tribes of the north.

The northern offensive was launched just a year after the military engaged in a massive campaign in the southern region of Mindanao, where the insurgents are known to be well entrenched. It also comes amid the worst economic crisis in the Philippines since World War II, which has created breeding grounds for dissent and insurgency.

Some 3,000 troops have been moved into the northern mountains on a search-and-destroy mission. Smaller-scale actions continue in the other areas, such as Mindanao and the depressed provinces of the Visayan region.

To bolster the morale of the troopers, the government reported that Marcos, arrayed in jungle fatigue uniform and his old service Colt .45 at his hip, hiked the Cordillera Mountains on Sunday to see the military operations against the NPA at the border of Abra, Kalinga-Apayao, and the Mountain provinces.

For the past year since what the government claimed was a successful campaign against the guerrillas in Mindanao, Marcos has been preoccupied with handling more immediate threats to his rule than that posed by communist insurrection. These other threats are rooted in Filipinos' outrage with the government after the assassination last August of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

The popular discontent was manifested in heavy turnouts at rallies calling for Marcos's resignation, which in turn sparked a flight of capital and a crisis of confidence that led to the economic crisis. This outrage also helped carry the poorly organized and resourceless opposition parties to impressive gains in last May's parliamentary elections.

Marcos's party won the elections with a comfortable majority, but the opposition onslaught and economic crisis required Marcos's undivided attention. He accepted the assurances of his security advisers that the NPA was well contained.

But when Marcos took a harder look, he was stunned to find that NPA attacks in company strength of 60 to 100 cadres were not occasional shows of strength for propaganda purposes, but were indeed, in some areas, the basis of NPA operations.

Overall numbers are still low. The rebels themselves claim to have only 20, 000 men against the military's estimated 200,000. But the size and frequency of the attacks show that the organizational and logistical capability of the NPA has improved much in the last two years.

There may be no immediate threat to the government, but the rebels are showing a longer-term potential. This means that they must be taken more seriously.

For its part, the NPA has seemed bent on provoking a government reaction. The rebels have bragged publicly about the expansion of their operations. They boast that they now have 45 active guerrilla fronts and that government forces are already stretched too thin to mount sustained attacks on NPA strongholds.

They also claimed responsibility for the murder two months ago of a police major general, Tomas Karingal. Whether valid or not, the claim was an obvious taunt to the government.

Having accepted the NPA's implicit challenge, the government badly needs to emerge not just successfully, but decisively. The NPA plan to distribute wealth from rich landlords and government officials to the masses is likely to attract even more sympathizers and armed cadres. The insurgent movement can therefore grow even more uncontrollably unless the government can prune it back - and mold the new parliament into a satisfactory outlet for political expression.

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