Aquino's new tactics to end rebellion. Amnesty offer and dismantling of vigilante groups aimed at wooing her political opponents on the left

Amnesty for communist rebels who surrender ... jail for armed vigilantes who fight the rebels. These are the latest tactics employed by President Corazon Aquino as she tries new ways to end an 18-year communist rebellion.

Both of Mrs. Aquino's actions are examples of how she has been able to undercut both leftists and rightists, enabling her to command the middle political ground.

The amnesty offer, which will be broadcast to guerrillas via radio dramas in the coming weeks, worries leaders of the Communist Party. The government expects as many as 5,000 of the estimated 14,000 full-time guerrillas to surrender in the coming year.

At the same time, Aquino asked for an end to government support for armed vigilante groups that have sprung up to fight the guerrillas in the year since Aquino came to power.

Even though one such group, Alsa Masa (People's Uprising), has already repelled rebels from the slums of Davao, the nation's third-largest city, Aquino decided to begin enforcing a provision in the new Constitution that outlaws private armies. Under former President Ferdinand Marcos, official and unofficial armed civilian groups were notorious for committing human rights abuses.

The amnesty offer for rebel ``returnees'' includes paying them for their guns. Other than that, the government offers little else, except help in finding an existing government program, such as temporary roadwork.

No one should be rewarded for having been a rebel, Aquino says. Also, the government fears an onslaught of Filipinos claiming to be rebels if material benefits, such as land, are offered to returnees.

``We'll just be a one-stop clearinghouse for rebels to choose from dozens of government programs that are already available to every Filipino,'' says Florian Alburo, chief of the amnesty program. But, he adds, the government is prepared to spend more money if too many returnees deplete a particular agency's budget.

Reports that hundreds of guerrillas are seeking amnesty have reached the government since Aquino issued the amnesty proclamation March 2.

The Communist Party, calling the government's offer a ``soft tactic to countervail its naked sword of war,'' actually helps advertise the amnesty by bringing it up for criticism in jungle lectures to members of its New People's Army.

In the one year since Aquino came to power, at least three small rebel rehabilitation programs have started up, mainly through private efforts. The government is relying on expertise from these programs.

Despite the program's national scope, surrendering rebels will be dealt with in one of 78 local government centers. A review for granting amnesty will be conducted by local panels consisting of a civilian lawyer, a military lawyer, a legal-aid worker, a government official, and one extra appointee. If a decision isn't made within 10 days after a rebel turns himself in, he is granted amnesty automatically.

The military intends to spend more than $15 million buying the returnees' guns, ranging from M-16s to World War I-vintage rifles.

The amnesty is for those who violated existing laws ``in furtherance of their political beliefs.'' This includes two Muslim rebel groups seeking autonomy. But the offer, changed at the last minute by presidential executive secretary Joker Arroyo, stops short of giving amnesty to captured rebels or those under investigation. Mr. Arroyo reportedly also does not want the amnesty to apply to some 400 soldiers who rebelled against the government in January.

The amnesty risks raising the level of dissent within the military, because it leaves unclear whether it applies to soldiers who allegedly committed human rights abuses under Mr. Marcos.

But the offer of amnesty is part of an overall anti-insurgency strategy that includes boosting economic growth, slowly escalating military offensives, restoring democracy through multi-party elections, and spending money in the poorest and most rebel-infiltrated villages.

One Marcos-era tool against the rebels was to have the military give arms to peasants. The Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF), as it is still called, reached a peak of 70,000 members under Marcos and was allegedly one of the worst offenders against human rights.

The new Constitution calls for the end of the CHDF as well as private armies. On Monday, Aquino asked that a draft executive order be submitted to her by April 30 which would fulfill the constitutional requirement. Officials said they hope to phase out the CHDF within two to three years, perhaps replacing it with a more professional village military force more integrated into the armed forces.

The armed forces chief, Gen. Fidel Ramos, has sought to retain the CHDF and has spent the past year cleaning up its ranks.

Aquino's move does not rule out unarmed civilian action against communist rebels. One group - Nakasaka (United People for Peace) in Davao del Sur Province - relies on civilian patrols of villages and the ``defensive'' use of stones and sticks to fend off guerrillas. It is supported by the local governor and military commander and is being considered as a possible model for other parts of the Philippines.

A member of the New People's Army general staff said yesterday that the NPA is very worried about the growth of anticommunist vigilante groups. He said the NPA is planning to counter them with some sort of military action, adding: ``We're not going to stay passive.''

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