Philippine dissatisfaction continues to grow with the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, with the military's role in the assassination of top opposition figure Benigno Aquino, and with the austerity measures imposed on the nation by the the newest International Monetary Fund loan package.
All three concerns come together this week. The first of two reports has been released by the commission that investigated the Aquino assassination; in it the commission chief blamed a military conspiracy. The report of the other four members is likely to identify a top Marcos associate as the conspiracy head. Demonstrations have been held this week against the austerity measures mandated by the IMF.
For Philippine citizens who oppose the autocratic Marcos rule, the challenge is to keep pushing for a further loosening of the reins, to form stronger and more effective opposition parties, and to not succumb to radicalization.
For President Marcos, the short-term requirement is to keep civilian unrest from becoming a serious threat to his regime. The long-term need is to prepare for a peaceful succession; effective steps have yet to be taken.
For the United States, prudence dictates distancing itself as much as possible from close involvement in Philippine affairs. The more closely involved the US is with President Marcos, the more difficult for Washington when Marcos is no longer in the picture.
Marcos is a clever politician, particularly effective in dealing with short-run problems. Already he is moving to cope with the Aquino report in an effort to blunt protest; he has agreed to appoint a court to try persons named in the report.
But for the sake of his people Marcos still needs to be willing to address the long-term requirement of producing an orderly transition of power. He has put off naming a vice-president until 1987; now next in line is the speaker of the National Assembly, who lacks the broad support a new leader ought to have.
Opposition to Marcos is fragmented into two general groups. They have demonstrated sufficient strength to stage street demonstrations; yet they are not now thought strong enough to challenge Marcos's power. Armed communist forces should not be underestimated, but they form a relatively small minority of the opposition and are not considered strong enough to unseat or succeed Marcos.
The US has very modest leverage in trying to get Marcos to plan for a more orderly succession or to loosen his control now. Philippine politicians historically have been able to make domestic capital of the view that the US is trying to exploit the Philippines. For example, leaders of this week's demonstrations protesting the IMF-dictated austerity package portrayed the IMF as American-dominated.
Thus any Washington move to pressure Marcos, say by reducing US foreign aid, could backfire.
Marcos has something the US needs: the big American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Building a similar base, with all its storage and ship repair capabilities, elsewhere in the Pacific would be extraordinarily expensive - perhaps prohibitively so. An alternative site would be three to four days steaming time farther away from Asian areas to which the US Navy might want to sail. Nevertheless, the US is not without its options. Marcos has no veto on America's doing what's right.
Washington should quietly seek to persuade Marcos to ease restrictions that foster turmoil. Marcos knows what he should do: put his nation first and take the needed steps.