Uncertainties in Manila as President Aquino visits the US

PRESIDENT Corazon Aquino will be making her first official visit to the United States next week. She deserves a warm welcome for the courageous and honest person she is and for the notable role she played in ending the Marcos regime, which, by its brutal and corrupt actions, had bankrupted the nation, increased support for communist insurgency, and cast doubt on the very future of the Philippines. Having just returned from a visit to Manila, however, I think it is not unfair to say that six months after the overthrow of Mr. Marcos, the Aquino government is going through a bit of a rough patch at home. Not that there seems any chance of a successful Marcos countercoup, for he is thoroughly discredited except among those that profited from his corruption. But without overemphasizing the point, the Aquino government's effort to draft a new constitution that will restore genuine democracy in a country as diverse geographically, religiously, and politically as the Philippines has raised many difficult questions that will be answered only when a new constitution is published and then approved by plebiscite. This has given rise to much uncertainty as to where the country is headed and to ``malaise,'' a word described by a French philosopher as ``the child of uncertainty.''

This situation is not Mrs. Aquino's fault, as we should be the first to recognize, recalling the problems and struggles the US Founding Fathers had in drawing up a constitution for a much less diverse society. Nonetheless, it has raised a question about her lack of previous political experience, linked with her understandable desire to heal the deep divisions within her country by embracing all elements (including the communists) in charting the future of the country. This has understandably disturbed the military, whose units are still being ambushed by communist insurrectionists.

To better understand the concerns causing the present malaise, perhaps a bit of elaboration may be helpful:

For impoverished urban and rural peoples struggling for existence in a country with an unemployment rate of about 40 percent, the greatly exaggerated expectations that Marcos's overthrow would immediately improve their lives has left many disillusioned. Their immediate concern is primarily economic.

But for others, the major source of the present uncertainties is political. What will be included in the new constitution being drafted by the Constitutional Commission created by President Aquino, and how will it affect them and the future of their country?

As just one example, the extreme left (communist) members of the commission are insisting on a provision for permanent neutrality for the Philippines which would eliminate the important American military bases on which Philippine (and American) security depends. While such a provision is unlikely to be included, what steps will the militant leftist minority (which has supported the communist insurrection) take to delay or disrupt the constitutional referendum process, particularly since Aquino has freed Jose Maria Sison, former head of the Communist Party, and permitted him to form a new leftist (communist) satellite party?

Another question is the powers the executive branch will have under the new constitution. Will the new constitution so weaken the presidency (as the left and some others who recall Marcos's abuses desire), leaving the country at the mercy of a divided and impotent legislature? (This possibility troubles many, because democracy in the Philippines is still young and in the development stage.) Therefore, if President Aquino steps down, as some say she plans to do, would it not be better to have a strong presidency with an experienced and forceful political leader to see the country through the transition period from Marcos and beyond?

Some mention present Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who served also as defense minister under Marcos but who thus far is not linked with Marcos abuses, as best suited to assume the presidency if Aquino steps down, rather than the other leading candidate, Vice-President Salvador Laurel. Certainly, Mr. Enrile is an impressive, forceful figure who is strongly supporting the Army chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos, a West Point graduate, in cleansing and reorganizing the Philippine armed forces so that they will be nonpolitical and the servant of a democratic government.

Again, is it not dangerous for President Aquino to accept the principle of communists serving in the middle echelons of government when their allegiance is first to the Communist Party, whose goal is to take over the country?

Still another question: What sort of autonomy arrangements will President Aquino try to work out with the Muslim rebels in Mindanao, who have been receiving aid from Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and will such arrangements protect the 3 million Christians who live there, and also the geographical integrity of the Philippines?

President Aquino's visit, through no fault of her own, comes at an awkward time for her.

She needs and deserves the material support and encouragement of the United States government and its people in the difficult days that still lie before her. Let us hope that she receives them, for this will help during the period until many of the above and other questions have been answered.

Douglas MacArthur II, a retired career ambassador, has held six presidential appointments and recently visited the Philippines.

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