Philippine Truce Used for Buildup : Rebel Camp Bristles With New Confidence

Times Staff Writer

On the last day of peace, the veteran guerrilla commander thought only of war.

Comrade Puling, as the commander calls himself, knelt in the dawn mist on a jungle hilltop, his mouth pressed close to a new field radio. He was talking to three field commanders scattered around this impoverished region of the Philippines.

Using a frequency still unknown to the Philippine military, Puling was calling in the forces of his 3rd Fighting Front, an element of the Communist New People's Army. The 3rd Fighting Front is equal in size to a full military battalion, and it is just one of dozens of such integrated rebel units strategically scattered throughout the country.

New Training Course

This was Saturday morning, the day that the two-month-old cease-fire with the Philippine government collapsed, and the guerrilla commander was summoning his troops for a new, sophisticated basic military training course that would teach them how to ambush, mine, machine-gun, rocket and bayonet soldiers of the Philippine armed forces far more effectively than ever before in the 18-year rebellion.

None of this would have been possible without the 60-day cease-fire that collapsed in a volley of gunfire and a flurry of charges and countercharges by the negotiators, all of which appears to have destroyed any hope for lasting peace.

During the cease-fire, Puling's men had combed the province of Northern Samar, pinpointing the perfect site for the monthlong training course--a two-acre clearing surrounded by civilian barrios 100% loyal to the Communists.

One of Puling's "Red fighters," a middle-class, college-educated youth of 20 with relatives living in Los Angeles, spent the cease-fire translating a highly detailed, inch-thick basic training manual that, beginning this week, will give Puling's men the best guerrilla training they have ever had.

Puling's overall provincial operations commander spent the cease-fire in Catarman, the provincial capital, firming up communications links between the fighting force and its political leadership in the urban-based Communist Party of the Philippines.

Here on this jungle hilltop, inside the largest rebel training camp ever visited by an outsider, was proof of the huge gains made by Asia's fastest-growing Communist insurgency during the two-month truce that President Corazon Aquino had hoped would help divide and conquer the Communist threat to her year-old government.

Muddy Jungle Paths

At the invitation of the New People's Army, a Times reporter traveled for 12 hours upriver, much of the way by dugout canoe or on foot along muddy jungle paths, to determine the cease-fire's impact on the rebels, now estimated to number 23,000, and to learn their military strategy for the future.

By means of interviews with the guerrilla fighters and their commanders at the training camp, and with senior Communist Party leaders in Samar and Manila, The Times learned that:

--President Aquino's "policy of attraction," under which her government is offering money and land to rebels who will turn in their guns and surrender, is so far a failure. Not only are most of the rebels more committed than before to remaining in the jungle, but the New People's Army general staff has threatened that any who surrender with their firearms "will be executed."

--Despite claims by Aquino's military that large numbers of rebels had surrendered during the cease-fire, it was clear that on Samar Island, in the heavily populated Bicol region on southern Luzon Island and in Mindanao, northern Luzon and other strategic areas where the Communists are strong, the rebels actually increased their number. They recruited many more new men than they lost through surrender.

--Far from divided, as the Aquino government says, the Communist Party's political leaders and the senior commanders of the New People's Army appear to be even more united than they were before the cease-fire. Although most of the rebel commanders interviewed said they would reject Aquino's proposal for regional cease-fires--several analysts said this is an attempt to "divide and conquer" the rebels rather than address their grievances--they all said the power to make decisions on regional truces lies with the Communists' national party leadership in Manila.

--The rebels also used the break in the fighting to enlist sympathetic professionals in towns and cities, where the rebels moved about freely during the cease-fire. Technical manuals and political propaganda were translated into local languages, printed and widely distributed in towns previously untouched by the rebels.

--The rebels used the truce to produce new and far more effective weapons, among them homemade rocket launchers. Several guerrilla fronts now have sophisticated, locally made land mines, several of which were used in last Friday's opening rebel salvo, an ambush that left five government soldiers dead in the northern province of Kalinga-Apayao. The commander in Samar said the mines will now be used extensively.

--Although the rebel leaders concede that they have done little to erode Aquino's personal popularity since she took power last February, they used the cease-fire to strengthen their ties not only with the peasants but also with a growing support group among rural businessmen and traders, a group they call "the petite bourgeoisie"--a political move that the leaders say has drawn the people further away from the government's 200,000-strong armed forces.

--Conversely, in many rebel strongholds, such as the Samar region, the government's armed forces carried out very little of the "civil-military operations" they had promised as part of an effort to win "the hearts and minds" of the peasants during the cease-fire. Rather than visit remote barrios, building roads and schools and new loyalties, most military commanders concentrated on target practice, survival training and social engagements.

Holiday Socializing

One of the more bizarre of these social functions took place on the day after Christmas in Catarman. This was a "peace" dance sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Dozens of Communist rebels and government soldiers put down their arms, crowded into the city's social hall and waltzed, cha-cha'ed and boogied for several hours.

The government troop commander in the region helped organize the event. He called it a major breakthrough in reconciliation with the rebels--similar, he said, to the several tennis matches he sponsored in which he and his commanders fought it out on the courts with the city's top leftist leaders.

But rebel leaders noted that the army commander, Col. Frederico Ruiz, had to surround the courts with soldiers to ensure security, and a rebel fighter who attended the dance said it was not a sign of cooperation but a reflection of the deep divisions in Samar society.

Wall Flower Groups

"I was there," said Comrade Philip, who like all members of the New People's Army uses a nom de guerre and the Filipino-language title kasama, which means "comrade." "If you looked closely at what happened that night, the NPA (New People's Army) were on one side of the hall, with all the people, and the military was alone on the other side. You could see at that affair how isolated they are."

Philip is overall operational commander of NPA forces in Northern Samar. He commands the rebels training this week in the jungle camp. And he is living testimony to how formidable a task Aquino faces in trying to end an armed rebellion that claims the support of at least 2 million Filipinos.

Philip, 29, is an articulate, college-educated former seminarian who abandoned the priesthood for the jungle five years ago when he "realized that the injustice in our society--the great gulf between rich and poor--was too wide to bridge without the use of force."

Aquino's Promises

When Corazon Aquino became president, she promised a fair, free and equitable government that would favor the poor and bring rebels like Philip "back into the mainstream of society."

But Philip made it clear in a six-hour interview that he is now even more committed to the armed struggle than he was under the president whom Aquino replaced, Ferdinand E. Marcos. Aquino promised the nation change, he said, but so far has failed to deliver in rural provinces like Northern Samar, where most of the 430,000 people still live as tenant farmers or squatters, struggling to grow enough food to survive.

"It is also clear to everyone now that Mrs. Aquino does not control her military," Philip said. "Since the February revolution (that brought Aquino to power), in Samar alone we have recorded more than 40 military operations that have killed three peasants and 12 members of our peasant organizing teams.

"Before, we said we would support the programs and policies of Cory (as Aquino is called), but now it seems too obvious that she is swinging to the right."

Goal of 'Stalemate'

Philip concedes that the rise to power of Aquino's moderate government after two decades of Marcos' authoritarian rule has made it more difficult for his movement to achieve its goal of "strategic stalemate" with the government by 1990.

"We still cannot see immediate victory, that is for sure," he said. "First of all, she has credibility, and people still look at her with some kind of hope."

Aquino's presence has altered the Communists' strategy, he said, adding: "We now realize we cannot win this revolution with only the peasant class. We have to open also to the middle forces--the petite bourgeoisie. We want it to be a popular army, not any more a peasant army."

The visit to the rebels' training camp in Northern Samar provided ample images of this shift in strategy. The rebels now range in age from 12 to 45; they include illiterate farmers as well as college students, former merchants and traders--and a dozen women.

Gunships Lacking

The new basic training manual also reflects the attempt to modernize the rebel force that began in 1969 as a ragtag band, a few dozen disgruntled former students, into a highly organized militia with nationwide communications and arms as sophisticated as those of the government--except for the lack of helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery.

The manual contains precise data on the government-issue M-16, M-14, M-1 and M-2 assault rifles that make up the guerrilla arsenal (largely stolen from soldiers in raids and ambushes). It teaches the guerrillas how to strip and reassemble the weapons blindfolded. It teaches them how to destroy tanks and armored personnel carries with land mines, how to build base camps, how to knock out government communications equipment, how to manufacture grenade launchers, how to use mortars.

The 20-year-old who spent the past two months translating that manual into the local language is at once an example of Commander Philip's vision of the New People's Army of the future and of the failure of Aquino's policies to stop it.

Cross-Legged Sitter

Comrade Leo, as he calls himself, said he joined the rebels only last October, eight months after Aquino rose to power. He talked sitting cross-legged beside two machine guns, a dozen grenades strapped to his back. Nearly 40 other rebels stood around him, jammed into a hut along with their commander, Comrade Puling.

He said he was a fifth-year student in veterinary medicine at the University of the Eastern Philippines when he decided that he "would like to help the people, not the animals."

"The animals," he said, "belong only to the elite classes. And it is the people who are suffering."

Asked how he responded to the Aquino government's offer of money and land if he surrendered with his M-203 grenade launcher, Leo smiled and shook his head.

"I came here for the people, not for myself only," he said. "If she (Aquino) gives to all the people, I will go down. If she gives the land to all the Filipino people who work that land, then all of us will come down from these hills. That is the main thing. She herself owns a hacienda where thousands of farmers till the soil, and she refuses her own tenants their lands.

'People's Army'

"We see ourselves as an army of the people. We are living up here because we are fighting for the people. She must see that it is not for us only that we live like this."

In just a few days' time, it is easy to see the hardships that are the daily realities of the Philippine guerrilla fighter.

They eat only plain, boiled rice, most of it from local farmers in the form of what the government calls "illegal taxation." It is only to honor a rare visitor that the rebels treat themselves to a delicacy: a smelly, three-inch long fried fish--one per person. They sleep on beds of split bamboo in ingeniously simple huts roofed with palm leaves--little protection from the incessant rain.

The guerrillas are rarely dry--or healthy. Their "roads" are treacherous jungle paths of mud so deep they must go barefoot. They often cross rivers waist-deep, and the cold and damp of jungle nights make pneumonia and tuberculosis their worst enemies.

'We Do the Hunting'

"Mrs. Aquino just does not understand," Comrade Leo said. "When one lives in this way, one's commitment grows deeper. She says we are tired and want to come down. Well, we say we are tired of what is going on down there, and that is why we are up here. She says we should come down because we are tired of being hunted. Well, here in Northern Samar it is we who do the hunting."

Indeed, traveling with the rebels through the province, it became clear that they control vast regions in an area long forgotten by the central government in Manila.

Guerrilla fighters traveled openly on Samar's principal river, brandishing assault rifles in dugout canoes. They were greeted with admiration, smiles and handshakes in several well-populated barrios, where their political influence is so strong that only one or two voters out of more than 1,000 voted last week in favor of Aquino's new constitution, which the Communists opposed as elitist.

Soldiers Are Scarce

When an American journalist entered one of the barrios a few minutes ahead of his rebel escorts, he was greeted with shouts of "Imperialismo! Imperialismo!" And several village residents said it had been more than a year since they had seen a government soldier in their barrio.

All this tended to support Commander Puling's claim that his New People's Army now has strong influence, if not outright control, in a full 75% of the province's more than 500 villages.

Only once during the two-day tour of the province with the rebels were any government soldiers seen. It was on Northern Samar's only paved road, the main highway, which even local government officials concede is the only area where Aquino's government even pretends to exert any influence or control.

The soldiers were speeding along in a jeep, with an armored personnel carrier as escort. Their rifles were at the ready, and fear was clearly reflected in their faces.

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