Until recently most observers tended to dismiss the Philippines' communist guerrillas as a peripheral problem. Now some of the same observers -- in the governments of the United States, the Philippines, and other Western nations -- describe the Philippines' communists as one of the world's most sophisticated and successful insurgent movements.
A number of Western and Filipino insurgency specialists feel that a full-scale war between government and communist forces -- known as ``strategic stalemate'' in Maoist guerrilla strategy -- could come in the next two to three years, if the government does not take drastic action to forestall it. If it comes to this, some observers warn, the government will be in very serious trouble.
``Quite frankly,'' said one foreign specialist, ``if the situation gets as far as the stalemate, I don't think that [President Ferdinand] Marcos or any of his likely successors will be able to turn it around.''
In strategic stalemate, the Communist Party's armed wing, the New People's Army, would increasingly operate in large military units. The underground's political organizations would aim to immobilize the machinery of government -- first selectively and temporarily, then totally and permanently.
A communist cadre said, ``Even analyzing our prospects in the grimmest possible light, I see no way we can lose now.''
``Let's assume major political mistakes on our part and direct US intervention to back up the Marcos regime,'' said the cadre, a longtime member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. ``Even then we'll reach the strategic stalemate by end of this decade.''
What follows is a brief look at the insurgents' strength, leadership, strategy, and aims.
Strength: The Communist Party (founded 1968) claims about 35,000 members, and the New People's Army (NPA) close to 20,000. These figures cannot be verified independently, but the general feeling among guerrilla watchers is that they are reasonably accurate.
Party members claim that the movement's growth rate, already fast, is still picking up momentum. The nation's deepening economic crisis, one cadre says, ``has provided very fertile ground for recruitment.''
The claimed fast development has brought with it a number of problems. One is political: Party sources say they no longer have the time they would like for the political training of new recruits.
``At best 40 percent of the NPA are party elements [candidate or full members],'' says a cadre. ``Sooner or later we'll have to slow down a little and consolidate.''
Another problem is financial: large-scale political actions and guerrilla operations are expensive. And the Communist Party like any other organization in the Philippines, has been hit by the country's economic crisis.
A year ago, usually-reliable sources say, it cost the NPA about 15,000 pesos ($850) to maintain a 100-fighter company in the field for a month. This cost has now doubled, the sources estimate.
Then there is the problem of arming the new recruits. The Communist Party maintains that 90 percent of its arms are captured -- or purchased -- from its enemy, the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In recent years the majority of NPA weapons have been provided by the underground's main growth area, the big southern island of Mindanao. There is no sign that the Communist Party-NPA regularly obtains weapons overseas -- though there are reliable reports that a small number of Soviet-designed AK-47 combat rifles were bought fairly recently somewhere in the Middle East.
The Soviets have reportedly approached the Communists with offers of financial aid, but party sources say they were rebuffed. And the Chinese -- at one time the Philippine Communists' ideological model -- do not seem interested in helping.
``The Chinese Communist Party is basically rightist,'' explained one Philippine communist cadre.
Leadership: The Communist Party is headed by a three-man Politburo usually known as the ``troika.''
All three are graduates of the University of the Philippines, the country's largest and most politically-active university. Their ages range from late 30s to early 50s.
Rodolfo Salas -- sometimes known as Bilog (``Fatty'') is party chairman and head of the military commission.
Rafael Baylosis, a former university lecturer, is said to be the party's secretary general. A former journalist, Tony Zumel, is the third troika member.
Ranking inside the troika, Communist Party insiders say, is not important; the three work as a team. They are assisted by two alternate Politburo members, whose names are not divulged, and a small central committee.
The remarkable thing about the top leadership has been its powers of self-regeneration. Time after time top leaders have been captured, and the insurgent movement has scarcely faltered. ``We never like to lose our leaders,'' says one cadre, ``but none of them are irreplaceable.''
Strategy: The jargon is leaden, but actual party strategies are, as one Western diplomat says, ``elegant.''
The party says it is currently in ``the advanced sub-stage'' of the strategic defensive -- the first stage of Maoist guerrilla strategy. Its political and military profile is rising, and response from the Philippines' armed forces is increasing accordingly. The party aims to keep the government off balance -- prevent it from concentrating its full fire power on any one part of the country.
``Whenever the regime tries to hit us in one area,'' said a party organizer, ``they'll be faced with problems -- mass strikes, for example -- at the other end of the archipelago.'' If the strategy works, each time the government gains ground in one area it will lose ground elsewhere.
While this happens the NPA is stepping up its own operations. Guerrilla units in the most advanced NPA areas -- Mindanao, for example -- have already been told to launch operations at least four times a week. By 1987, the NPA aims to have 60,000 fighters in all and daily operations in their more advanced zones. They plan to attack and briefly hold major provincial towns. And by then they also will have gone into electoral politics -- covertly supporting candidates in the 1986 local elections -- and perhaps in the presidential polls in 1987.
And special communist guerrilla units, the Armed City Partisans, will be operating in most large cities and towns. The partisans are already operating in Davao. They started last year in Manila, but ran into problems.
Aims: Communism or socialism in the Philippines, the party says, is ``way off in the future.'' If the Communist Party-NPA wins or comes to power, a cadre says, it will form a ``democratic coalition government'' composed of party leaders and other ``nationalist and anti-imperialist'' elements. For the foreseeable future, a party cadre says, the coalition government would foster a mixed economy. Major industries would be nationalized, ``but with adequate compensation.''
Referring to Vietnam's recent history the cadre added, ``We don't want boat people leaving the Philippines, and we won't be able to afford it.'' One reason they will not be able to afford it, the cadre says, is because the Communists may gain power before the country has recovered from the current economic crisis.