Shadow over the Philippines

THE recent congressional report on the Philippines casts a further pall on a deteriorating situation. The report prepared for the Senate Select Com- mittee on Intelligence posed the possibility of Soviet involvement in the growing Philippine civil war. It cited indirect Soviet contacts with the rebels and an expanded Soviet embassy in Manila. At present the insurgency, led by the New People's Army (NPA), is indigenous and not reliant on aid from an external power. The report's release roughly coincided with the trip of Imelda Marcos to Moscow. Mrs. Marcos, the Philippines' first lady, reportedly discussed expanded Soviet-Philippine relations, and the visit is widely viewed as a hedge against growing United States criticism of the Marcos regime.

One fundamental irony is that the NPA's impressive arsenal, which reportedly includes grenade launchers, mortars, and M-16 rifles, is largely American made. Most of the weapons have been taken from the Philippine military, the recipient of enormous amounts of US aid. Funding is primarily local, consisting of voluntary support and involuntary ``contributions,'' the latter comprising ``taxes'' paid by local businesses.

The rebellion's self-reliant orientation may change as more Filipinos join NPA ranks. Current figures -- which estimate rebel strength at 30,000 full- and part-time guerrillas -- indicate a sharp rise in NPA strength. If the growth continues, it is possible the rebels may have to rely on an outside source, such as the Soviet Union, to arm and supply their expanded forces. For the moment, however, the leadership of the NPA is believed to be turning down Soviet support.

Russian interference at some point down the road would be a dangerous move, and would immediately raise the level of superpower tension. The Soviets also understand what is at stake, however, particularly for the US, and may be willing to gamble. They realize that there is strong sentiment in Congress to remove strategic American naval and air bases in the Philippines, should the civil war threaten to involve the US directly.

Unfortunately, American policy has been largely knee-jerk; it has not prepared for that possibility. At present, there are no feasible alternatives to the bases, and one result of a premature US pullout would be to abandon Southeast Asian waters -- including the critical Malacca Strait -- to growing Soviet naval and air power in Vietnam.

The military and economic importance of the strait cannot be overemphasized. It connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean, permitting US warships based in the Philippines quick access to the latter. In addition, oil tankers bound for Japan sail regularly through the strait in the opposite direction.

There are other concerns as well, not the least of which is the level of violence. Since 1972, the year President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, more than 100,000 have been killed in the civil turmoil that has gripped this land. That total would increase dramatically with Soviet intervention.

Furthermore, Mr. Marcos might, as he hypothetically suggested in June, use such foreign aid to invoke the ``mutual defense pact'' to request ``allied troops.'' Those oblique references are to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines, and the ``allied troops'' would inevitably be American.

In Congress there is an enormous amount of hostility to the Marcos regime, along with healthy skepticism about anything the Philippine President says. That skepticism has only been intensified following Marcos's reappointment of Gen. Fabian Ver to the nation's highest military command. Clearly, there is not much interest in committing American forces to save a government as bad as the present one.

Yet, such a focus, so narrowly and clearly drawn, may not always remain so. At present, there is no evidence of Soviet participation in the civil war. But what if the Soviets decided to assist the NPA in a fashion suggested by Mr. Marcos's hypothetical remarks?

Would the invocation of assistance then be dismissed summarily by the US as simply an attempt to save a discredited government? Or what if the request was made by a democratic administration that had succeeded the current regime? What would be the costs, not only to Filipinos, but to other US relationships in the region, of not responding to America's former colony and staunchest Asian friend?

Among this country's foreign relations, the Philippines, because of its shared heritage with the US, is unique. With that heritage there is also an American assumption, emotionally powerful and hidden at times, that the Philippines will remain ``American.''

In addressing Soviet activity in the developing world, the American government, and Congress in particular, has been cautious. There have been no US troops committed to Nicaragua, Afghanistan, or Ethiopia, despite Soviet military influence in those countries.

That restraint could disappear in the case of the Philippines if the rebellion grew and demonstrated substantial Soviet involvement. Unlike, for example, Afghanistan, the Philippines, with its substantial link to the US, is fundamentally different. The pressure to respond would be far greater, and it could include the commitment of American troops.

Clearly, the situation should never reach such a point. The Soviets should be advised that Russian meddling in the Philippines would be intolerable.

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

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.