Aquino frees top Communists to spark dialogue. But Communists are holding out for more concessions

With the release yesterday of the last four senior Communists in captivity, the Aquino government hopes it can lure the underground party into a dialogue. But despite the new government's optimistic claims that the party has sent out some feelers, Communist cadres say their leaders have not yet decided how to respond to the new situation in the Philippines.

The release of the four Communists was a sign of President Corazon Aquino's assertiveness in the face of opposition from the Philippine armed forces. The military establishment, led by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos, had been reluctant to release them. The military cited fears that their liberation would strengthen the party leadership and could lead to violent attacks to even some scores with the military.

These objections were overruled. Yesterday, three civilian Cabinet members -- former human rights lawyers Rene Saguisag and Joker Arroyo and former detainee Jovito Salonga -- had what Mr. Saguisag called a ``candid, cordial, and vigorous exchange of views'' with General Ramos and Mr. Enrile. After the meeting, the Communists were released and met briefly with Mrs. Aquino.

The former detainees are Jose Maria Sison, the party's founder; Bernabe Buscayno, once the commander of the party's armed wing; and two other senior military organizers, Alexander Birondo and Ruben Alegre.

Saguisag, the presidential spokesman, said he hoped the Communist Party would respond with a conciliatory gesture of its own. ``The ball is in their court,'' he told journalists. The release of all political prisoners was one of Aquino's campaign pledges. She had also pledged to declare a six-month cease-fire with the Communists to enable negotiations between government and underground to take place.

Aquino now plans to establish a presidential Commission on Reconciliation to work on bringing about a dialogue with the insurgents. Administration officials say the commission will be headed by either former Sen. Lorenzo Tanada or former Sen. Jose Diokno, veteran nationalist leaders with good contacts on the left.

But the underground leadership may be less keen to talk than the government believes. Two well-informed Communist Party members interviewed separately yesterday said they knew of no official feelers from the party leadership. Both said they did not expect a substantive reaction from the party until the government showed signs of genuine commitment to two ``rock bottom'' demands of the party: comprehensive land reform and the removal of United States military bases.

For its part, the sources added, the party has no intention of abandoning its armed struggle as the principal means of attaining power. Aquino, on the other hand, has said she will not consider legalizing the Communist Party unless it disbands its New People's Army, which claims 12,500 regulars and an additional 20,000 local guerrillas active in over three-quarters of the country.

``The party has had absolutely no contact with the government,'' one of the cadres said yesterday. But it will probably contact the new regime soon ``to examine room for maneuver and to feel them out,'' he added.

But for now, the Communist leadership is only watching developments. ``They still haven't realized what hit them,'' the cadre said.

The more senior of the two cadres said the party was shocked and disappointed by events. Aquino's dramatic rise to power has also set back the party's timetable for victory. Up to now, he said, the party had seen itself playing a major role in government by 1990. But the cadre claimed that the situation is not totally bleak for the Communists. ``The gains of the Aquino government are fragile, and the stakes are extraordinarily high,'' the cadre said. ``If she falters, she has the military on one side and the insurgency on the other.''

The present period is a time to regroup and reflect, the cadre said, and to engage primarily in political rather than military activity. The cadre stressed that this is not official policy, but is one line of action currently being discussed. He said that his party's best hope is to exploit the divisions that are already threatening to split the Aquino government. The party divides the government into three factions: Aquino loyalists, supporters of Vice-President Salvador Laurel, and the military.

``We must work to effectively highlight the contradictions between these three groups,'' the cadre said, adding that party front organizations would probably give their conditional support to Aquino.

Large-scale Communist military action is not feasible as long as the armed forces, ``our fascist leaders,'' are viewed as saviors, the cadre added. This situation will probably make the Communist leadership amenable to a cease-fire. But once Philippine Army abuses begin to recur, the cadre said, Communists will probably return to action. For the time being, he said, the party will concentrate on recruiting more guerrillas and consolidating the political education of those already in the ranks.

While the party views its followers as a disciplined, fairly politicized movement, the government sees them simply as victims of the Marcos era who can be won back by reforms and governmental good faith. Saguisag says that the insurgents ``went to the hills because they were opposed to Mr. Marcos,'' and the new government will address the grievances that forced them into rebellion -- thereby defusing the insurgency. Party leaders say this is simplistic. The next few years will show who's right.

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