Moment of truth for Filipino Army. As fighting mounts, troops must show they're part of new, improved military

Since coming to power nearly a year ago, President Corazon Aquino has warned communist rebels: Surrender, or else face a new Philippine military - not the ``old, dispirited Army of Marcos.'' Now, as the fighting between the government and the communists resumes, Mrs. Aquino herself faces a challenge: Is the 160,000-member Philippine military really ``new,'' or at least new enough to defeat some 15,000 full-time guerrillas?

The question came to the fore this week as battles erupted between guerrillas and soldiers. They were the first encounters since a 60-day cease-fire collapsed Sunday and more serious than any fighting since Aquino came to power.

Commenting on the ``new'' Aquino military, one Western diplomat said, ``They've made a good start [toward reform], but they've been distracted, and they still have to show the necessary follow-through.''

Those distractions included two half-hearted mutinies in July and January and numerous coup rumors, revealing a politicized officer corps dabbling in mass action on Manila streets. Two decades under Ferdinand Marcos produced a military ``born and bred in a system where they not only talk politics, but they take action,'' the diplomat said.

But while some military leaders - including former defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile - spent many months threatening the Aquino government itself, most others have been quietly trying to bring changes up and down the ranks of the armed forces.

Those changes range from getting eight new Huey helicopters from the United States government, to some courts-martial of human rights abusers, to religious training of soldiers.

In a statement to troops Wednesday, which said that the truce was over and the military must now ``protect'' the people against the guerrillas, Aquino asked the military to pray ``so that God may yet snatch us from the brink of war and set us down gently in peace.''

Rather than concentrate on buying big hardware, the top Army brass has focused reforms on the common foot soldier, who must confront the enemy in rugged hill terrain, live in isolated camps, and risk being ambushed at any moment.

``I think we are in a better position to meet them [communists] than we were six or eight months ago,'' says Defense Secretary Rafael Ileto.

Some of the most significant changes include a new training camp, redeployment of battalions farther into rebel areas, faster logistical support, better communications, and a special group to check corruption. Although the truce was helpful in gaining time for reforms, ``we find it easier to create discipline and make changes under war conditions,'' one high-ranking general says.

Still to come is the revamping of a command structure set up under Mr. Marcos to centralize power in the hands of his chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver.

Also, a military-backed civilian militia, begun under Marcos and notorious for its abuses, is being cleaned up and reduced, although many of its members have reappeared in anti-communist groups. A few of these vigilante groups, which include ex-guerrillas, are supported by the military. Although the groups are not widespread yet, some observers fear that they could get out of hand, resulting in the murder of anyone even suspected of being tied to the Communist Party.

But above all, the military finds itself operating in a new political climate. For one thing, there may now be the political will to defeat the insurgents, though both government and military leaders say the ``military option'' must be combined with other steps, such as land reform.

``Marcos never wanted to destroy the insurgency, only neutralize it,'' the Western diplomat said. Keeping the insurgency active, he said, helped Marcos to maintain US support and allowed him to repress opponents.

Aquino, on the other hand, is reluctant to hit the rebels as a whole, for the main reason that the military is incapable of doing so. The military is now expected to concentrate its efforts in select areas, which could lead to offensives in areas north and south of Manila, to prevent the nation's capital from being ``choked off.'' And the government is trying to arrange local cease-fires, especially on the southern island of Mindanao, where rebel leaders may buck orders from above to fight.

Aquino has tried to accommodate the military's concerns recently. She met with officers close to Mr. Enrile; created a committee to investigate human rights abuses by the guerrillas (to balance a similar group created for military abuses); and, most significant of all, refused to make concessions to the communists in political talks that collapsed last month.

The communists themselves appear divided over tactics. Those with the upper hand in the party are the so-called ``militarists.'' They want to resume armed struggle, hoping it can bring back an abusive military and right-wing leaders, creating favorable conditions for revolution.

Opposing them internally is a group calling itself the ``rectificationists.'' They want to rectify past mistakes, such as the Communist Party's boycott of last February's presidential election, which helped bring Aquino to power. They believe the party must use the ``reformist'' Aquino government to win back pre-Aquino communist alliances with the middle class and intellectuals. The truce provided them the chance to test this political option. But the militarists, writing in a January party publication, called on their comrades to ``fight the ruling system.''

The militarists among the communists are banking on a Philippine military that will abuse and alienate civilians during search-and-destroy missions.

On Wednesday, Aquino called on soldiers ``to conduct themselves with honor and humanity against the enemy, and with utmost solicitude for the safety of our people.'' But in guerrilla warfare, soldiers will be hard pressed to tell the difference between peasants and rebels.

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