Aquino wins Round 1. Filipino communists move closer to cease-fire

President Corazon Aquino and communist rebels face a mathematical maze in the quest for peace in the Philippines as they move closer to a truce. Any cease-fire would require that some 200,000 troops spread over a nation of 7,100 islands somehow avoid encounters with some 16,000 insurgents who are believed to hold influence over 17 percent of the 55 million Filipinos.

To avoid haphazard clashes may be impossible, making any cease-fire far easier to agree to than to abide by. That's why the Philippine Communist Party insisted on a joint monitoring committee when it finally gave in to President Aquino's ever-hardening demand for a cease-fire on Sept. 27.

Although a pact has yet to be forged, Mrs. Aquino clearly won the first round of the precarious peace talks (which began in early August) with the Communist Party's negotiators, the National Democratic Front.

Also, for the moment at least, the communists are helping Aquino fend off the military's increasing desire to resume full-scale sweeps for insurgents. Since Aquino took power in February, the armed forces have been under orders to maintain a largely defensive footing, a stance that has increased casualty rates for soldiers in encounters with the communist New People's Army (NPA).

The prospect of Aquino ending her policy of nonviolence in favor of an all-out military campaign not only forced rebel leaders into seeking a cease-fire, but also made them drop -- at least temporarily -- previous political demands, such as the dismantling of civilian militias.

According to those close to the Communist Party Politburo, any cease-fire agreement can later be interpreted freely, such as allowing communists to pursue political activity in the open without military interference. Rebel leaders have noted well Aquino's cease-fire pact on Sept. 5 with Muslim guerrilla leader Nur Misuari, who later began to set up a provisional government in minority Muslim areas.

Also, if a cease-fire is broken, pinning blame on either side will probably not be easy, and the communists will nonetheless have gained valuable time. They also will have prevented, or at least slowed down, attempts by the government to make regional cease-fires with local NPA units.

Reports of internal problems within communist ranks are common, although unconfirmed. The party leadership needs to keep events moving in its favor at the national level to ensure that no regional commanders display an independent streak.

Already, one NPA faction led by a rebel priest in the Cordilleras, the tribal mountain areas on the main island of Luzon, met with Aquino and signed a cease-fire pact earlier this month.

A test local cease-fire in August between rebels and the local governor of Davao del Norte Province was shattered in a major clash on Aug. 27, in which nearly 20 soldiers and guerrillas were killed. A monitoring of lawyers, teachers, priests, and others, blamed the military. But the lesson learned was that any cease-fire monitoring group could not be everywhere at once to prevent clashes between long-time enemies.

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