Manila: the Gathering Storm

American officials are increasingly concerned about the growing strength of the Communist insurgency in the Philippines, which they link directly to the erosion of democratic institutions that has occurred under the 20-year-long rule of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. That threat, and the general deterioration in economic and political conditions that has encouraged it, is cited in a Reagan Administration interagency study that proposes sweeping changes by the Marcos regime as a condition of continued U.S. support. If the Administration has not yet adopted these proposals as policy, it should, for without major reforms it seems inescapable that the Philippines are headed for even more perilous times.

The Administration has asked Congress for $279 million in military and economic aid to the Philippines for the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1. That includes a doubling of the present military aid program to $100 million. In return, the interagency study would have the United States insist that Marcos depoliticize his armed forces, remove corrupt and incompetent officers and give up his authoritarian powers. If Marcos refuses to act, the study suggests such U.S. sanctions as delaying disbursements of aid and voting against Manila's requests for loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

These are powerful weapons to bring into play, but both American interests and the interests of the Philippines--not just those of Marcos and his cronies--justify their use. Communist rebels in the Philippines, suppressed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, have enjoyed an alarming revival under Marcos. It was purported concern over the Communist insurgency that originally prompted Marcos to impose martial law 13 years ago. Since then, and especially since 1979, the insurgency has flourished. U.S. officials now estimate the strength of the Communist New People's Army at 15,000, and its sympathizers at perhaps 1 million people in a population of 55 million.

Through September of last year, according to official army figures, there were 3,500 incidents between the Communists and security forces, in which each side suffered more than 800 killed. Brutal tactics by the military in some rural areas have killed many innocent civilians and in the process won new recruits and sympathizers for the Communists. Washington would like to see the acting chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, given permanent status in the belief that he would restore professionalism to the army. But Marcos has indicated that he wants his old and loyal pal, Gen. Fabian Ver, back in that office, if Ver is acquitted of the charges that he now faces in the murder of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the opposition leader assassinated at Manila Airport in 1983.

Washington has been saying publicly for some time now that it considers thorough military reform and the strengthening of democratic rights and institutions essential for a restoration of political stability in the Philippines. The Reagan Administration now has before it a plan to encourage these changes. It should not hesitate to act on those recommendations.

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