Manila Starts to Win Hearts and Minds

IT is ever more clear that a turning point has been reached in Manila's long battle with communist insurgency. This is because politics has been reintroduced into Philippine life. The result is that there exist mechanisms for the expression of popular will. These are beginning to shape the socioeconomic environment by addressing longstanding development concerns and demands for social justice. Some observers disagree; they see the continuing presence of socioeconomic inequity as dictating further escalation of the conflict. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has committed such an error by deciding to push the military aspects of the conflict on the assumption that ``strategic stalemate'' is at hand.

Upping the military tempo would be a mistake on its own terms - the rebels' formations are nowhere near ready to go toe to toe with the Philippine military. More fundamentally, however, the weakness in such an approach is that it pushes to the fore military considerations in what is, after all, a political war. In the past, the CPP has shown considerable flexibility in its strategic approach. This is a poor time to switch to a military push.

One major labor organizer on Negros, known as ``Bunny,'' a party member with district secretary rank, put this in perspective when he spoke of direct, face-to-face orders delivered by the ranking party men on Negros to stop engaging in union activities that would better the lot of the workers. Bunny was admonished that sharpening the contradictions was what he was supposed to be about, not helping the system perpetuate itself through reform.

``Whenever there is a problem [between the workers and landlords], we're not supposed to talk but to intensify the struggle through strikes, economic sabotage, and so on,'' Bunny said. ``If there is an intensification of mass action, it is complemented by armed struggle. That's what the CPP wants to happen.''

Ironically, the party's turn toward increased violence comes even as the government has embraced the primacy of political factors. The three-pronged ``triad strategy'' was formally adopted a year ago. It gives equal importance to military operations, intelligence, and civic action within an overarching development effort by elected officials.

There are rough edges to be smoothed out, but the thrust is plain. Many officers - Brig. Gen. Rene Cardones, commander of the military forces on Negros, is the acknowledged leader - have a highly developed grasp of communist revolutionary warfare.

Their new emphasis is not upon ``search and destroy'' but upon holding and clearing territory by rooting out the communist infrastructure in the villages. This allows elected government to function and to address people's concerns. ``Insurgency is a political war,'' General Cardones says, ``and we are dealing with political forces. Our Army was involved in the fighting-cock syndrome. They were an armed force which wanted to fight an armed force. This was a mistake.''

The Army is increasingly absorbing the lessons learned in areas such as Negros. By causing the CPP effort to stall in its ``Iron Triangle,'' Cardones has forced people to listen to him. He has been joined by a growing number of like-minded officers who under the Marcos regime found themselves frustrated in their efforts to address the ultimate roots of the Communists' insurgency.

It is the military that is moving to ``eliminate the grievances'' even as the party opts for gunslinging. ``To ask if we're winning or losing is the wrong question,'' a major told me. ``The proper question is, `Are we making progress?' And the answer to that is yes. I was a fighting cock as a battalion commander. I measured my success by how I did against the armed element: how many bodies, how many weapons recovered. That was a waste of time.''

Words are not, however, the best indication of the positive trend in the government campaign. That is to be found in the increasing numbers of CPP operatives taking ``leave'' and in the growing stream of the party's village cadre, the so-called ``organized masses,'' who have asked to return to areas of greater government presence. There they frequently seek to form village militia. Consequently, the party has been forced to launch attacks directly on civilian concentrations surrounding military positions.

Evidence of the degree to which the party is feeling pressured can be seen in its stepped-up domestic and international campaign to paint the Philippine government as guilty of widespread rights violations. Extra-legal killings have apparently been carried out by government supporters, but best evidence shows they pale in numbers, compared with the institutionalized violence of the party. Asked why they had ``come in,'' refugees have told me: ``We can no longer take the [CPP's] taxes. We can no longer take the [CPP's] violence.''

There is the party's miscalculation in a nutshell. Its strategy of increased violence ignores the desire for justice that is the fundamental driving force at the heart of the Philippine insurgency - the force that has allowed a committed communist leadership to recruit nonideological peasant manpower. It is the return of the political process to the Philippine people that allows justice to be pursued and makes politics the ultimate government weapon.

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