Telling It Like It Is in Philippines

Three books take unsentimental look at factionalized country Cory Aquino is trying to unite

REBELLION AND REPRESSION IN THE PHILIPPINES by Richard J. Kessler, New Haven: Yale University Press, 227 pp., $25


by Gregg R. Jones, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 360 pp.,

$26.95 cloth, $16.95 paper


by Victor N. Corpus, Quezon City, Philippines: VNC Enterprises,

192 pp., $7 paper

THE big question facing a declining Aquino government is no longer achievement, but survival and secession: After Cory, what? At best, another ineffective civilian government that could at least maintain a constitutional presence. At worst, an aggressive military junta that might emulate the Indonesian army in 1965 by trying to drown the communist enemy in blood.

No matter what happens, these three blunt, realistic books may help us understand the true nature of problems long obscured by the American love affair with Cory Aquino. Like Raul Alfons'in in Argentina, Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala, and Jos'e Napole'on Duarte in El Salvador, she too was hailed as a savior - though skepticism now is spreading. One could ask, ``Will Violeta Chamorro go the same way?''

Aquino seemed cast for the part. A telegenic secular madonna, a martyr's widow, the demure personification of a ``clean revolution,'' she headed a popular uprising with mass support and little bloodshed: how easy for Americans to see events as the victory of good over evil. That Aquino came from the centuries-old landed oligarchy, that her heterogeneous coalition represented everything and nothing, that her land-reform program quietly was diluted: All this was easily overlooked by Americans seeking a savior - much as they had done with Ramon Magsaysay 30 years before.

He had indeed defeated the communist Hukbalahaps, but there followed business as usual. So it is now, as these books suggest. Even Aquino's family has not hesitated to undercut land reform. After six attempted coups in four years, the army clearly is more dangerous to her than it is to the communist New People's Army, which dominates the backlands, while its skilled ``sparrow teams'' strike at urban targets.

It is the authors' unsentimental focus that renders their accounts valuable. The intrigues, scandals, and personal rivalries of Manila are largely ignored in these three books, a contrast to Stanley Karnow's gossipy narrative, ``In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines.'' Nor is there any of the post-colonial guilt that blames everything on Washington, or the Kissinger-style realpolitik that trivializes Filipinos by treating them as mere cold-war pawns.

Instead, Richard Kessler, Greg Jones, and Victor Corpus have focused on the key battlers for the Philippine future. There is the angry, factionalized, and ineffective army, founded by and identified with the Americans, but that is a law unto itself. And there are the communist insurgents, a genuinely Filipino amalgam of embittered, land-hungry peasants, and young, often idealistic Maoist intellectuals who see their country sliding downhill.

Marcos's long years of government by crony and military terror polarized the nation, sabotaged constitutional processes, and tied politics to men with guns, whether they were the communists, the army, the notorious Constabulary, the anti-communist vigilantes, or the landlords' private militia.

Or had it always been essentially so? Is it fair to blame Marcos? Had he, in using the army as a bludgeon, intensified already existing tendencies such as political illegitimacy and violence, lack of national identity and cohesion, the rivalries of provincial bosses, and interest groups and powerful families?

So suggests Richard Kessler in Rebellion and Repression. An established expert on the Philippines, and now a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, Kessler puts the communist insurgency in perspective. He contends that it is simply the latest outburst of an intermittent, century-old land war between powerful landowners and desperate peasants, whom the Spanish and then the American overlords defeated in the name of order and property. He sees the American-supported suppression of the Hukbalahaps in the 1950s as more of the same and says that mystical, messianic notions of Christian justice and liberation theology are far stronger than Marxism for the peasants. He predicts that instability will continue - no matter what role Washington plays - until the peasant hunger for land and justice is at least partially satisfied.

Kessler has crafted a supremely authoritative book, the distilled essence of long experience, yet it is short and well-written enough to be read easily and not simply consulted. Here is a book to be pondered and even savored, one that disdains anti-communist clich'es. Kessler joins those rare authors who ask what really happens in third-world villages. Is the ambush of an army patrol simply communist terrorism? Or had those troops brutalized a village, and gotten away with it - until the first mine destroyed the first truck?

The traditional values that regulated peasant and landowner relations have everywhere been destroyed since the 18th century by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the modern state. Landowners have become more businesslike and demanding, less concerned about the peasants' welfare.

While Kessler offers a high-level analysis of the communists and also the ``Ramboys,'' the young army reformers, it is Gregg Jones in Red Revolution who takes us to the muddy roads, slippery trails, dense vegetation, and poor villages where the communists operate. He had the tenacity and sheer courage to see for himself, leaving the Manila gossip circuit and spending many weeks on eight expeditions to the guerrillas, who welcomed this opportunity for American publicity.

And he shows how they advance systematically, in each village, from ``social analysis'' (a thorough study of each villager's politics), through the gradual penetration by cadres who talk and listen, and offer alternatives to the injustice and poverty of village life.

Communist military tactics are no less modern and effective, as Victor Corpus, a lieutenant colonel of the Philippine army, demonstrates brilliantly in Silent Victory, a heavily diagrammed study of battle at the grass roots. Corpus speaks with authority: A professional soldier who triggered a major scandal by defecting to the communists in 1970 (he surrendered during 1976 in disillusionment and was imprisoned until the Aquino revolution), he has actually led guerrilla units.

Intelligence and surprise, not firepower or high tech, are the key to their success, he says. To find the enemy's weak spot, to quickly assemble overwhelming forces for an ambush or raid, to win in the first 15 minutes and then leg it to the mountains: This is the guerrilla pattern. Operations are, however, few, cautious, and intended for maximum political effect. David with his sling, or the Israelis at Entebbe are the model, not John Wayne.

All this hinges on knowledge, the intimate knowledge of government actions that only thousands of sympathizers can provide. As part of the knowledge-oriented world of today, the guerrillas have a huge data base, while government forces are cut off by injustice and brutality from the peasants who could provide intelligence - but don't. No wonder the junior officers on patrol in the boondocks are furious at the oligarchy and Cory Aquino for continuing the condition that makes the war unwinnable.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Telling It Like It Is in Philippines
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today