Philippines: reforms to stave off civil war

BEYOND the immediate problem of reform in the Philippines lies the longer-range but serious challenge of revolution. At some point, authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos will step down. Even with a smooth democratic transition in the post-Marcos era, the threat of revolution in the countryside will remain. Founded in 1968 by a small coalition of urban intellectuals and peasant rebels, the New People's Army (NPA) is the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Historically, the NPA has been an indigenous force and reportedly receives no support from Marxist countries.

Until Mr. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, NPA strength was minimal. That is no longer the case: According to a recent estimate, the rebels have an armed force of 15,000. In addition, the Philippine military believes that there is an NPA presence, albeit uneven, in every Philippine province.

There is no doubt Mr. Marcos must bear the blame for the danger that has evolved. With the declaration of martial law there was a consolidation of power, and with it came an arrogance that supremacy often brings. In the last 13 years Filipinos have endured military and political abuse, blatant corruption, and official indifference to widespread poverty and malnutrition -- problems particularly acute in the rural Philippines.

Yet, as dangerous as the NPA threat is, a sense of perspective is necessary. The guerrillas are both badly outgunned and outnumbered by the Philippine military: Army and constabulary forces alone exceed 100,000. More important than numbers, however, is geographic reality. The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands in which a vast array of languages and customs abound.

Clearly, the NPA has demonstrated the capacity to effectively disperse -- a development which has caused the military enormous tactical problems. However, dispersal and coordination of a successful national rebellion over difficult terrain are two different matters.

While the Marxists may still win, such a victory could not be immediate. Rebel leaders must imbue the rank and file with a sense of genuine revolutionary spirit. On that last point some explanation is necessary. Filipino culture is focused almost entirely on local concerns -- family, friends, and village. In many instances, villagers join rebel ranks because of abuses by local officials or the military. Recruits, at least initially, are often motivated by a sense of vengeance or survival, rather than attraction to leftist ideology.

This local orientation was the bane of a powerful rural rebellion over three decades ago, the Hukbalahap movement. Despite its importance, it is a phenomenon that is rarely mentioned in current analysis of the Philippines. Yet, in order to analyze the prospects for success of the present revolt, it is imperative to understand the dynamics of its ideological predecessor.

What is clear in the aftermath of the Huk failure is that there was a huge gulf between the Marxist leadership and a largely nonideological rank and file. While the former envisioned a governmental takeover, many of the latter were content with local reforms.

In the 1950s, this difference was exploited by the Philippine government. Ramon Magsaysay, first as secretary of defense, then as President, implemented a series of reforms ranging from rural improvement projects to punishment of abusive soldiers. Undoubtedly, many of the changes were cosmetic. Still, the impact upon the Huk movement was devastating. Magsaysay meant hope, and that was enough for many Huk veterans to lay down their arms.

For the US, with its extensive military and economic interests in the Philippines, it is important to recognize that there is a similiarly ``soft'' nonideological underbelly in the NPA movement. In 1983, a Defense Department report noted that NPA organizers ``have downplayed ideology and emphasized numerous local economic and social grievances.''

A wise United States policy must be prepared to underwrite and advocate programs which meet the challenge of insurgency at this basic level. In the countryside, such an approach will include, at a minimum, the removal of abusive soldiers, a comprehensive and revitalized land-reform program, and substantially improved health care.

The work should start now. Unfortunately, Mr. Marcos will never be mistaken for Mr. Magsaysay. The present regime, corrupt and discredited, is an unlikely agent of change.

Ideally, the President would resign; potentially, United States economic and political pressure is sufficient to accomplish this task. However, despite the deepening crisis, the Reagan administration shows no indication of moving in such a direction.

One alternative is to insist that the 1987 presidential elections be scrupulously free of interference from Malacanang, the presidential palace. It must be made clear that untainted elections are objects of American concern, and that both economic and military assistance depend on electoral fairness.

Only a new government, unmarked by the past, can possibly implement the reforms necessary to stave off civil war. American efforts must help make possible such a change.

Peter Bacho, a lawyer, teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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