Torn by internal divisions and under increasing military pressure, the last major Communist insurgency in Southeast Asia has weakened significantly in the past year, increasing evidence shows.
After 20 years of war, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, have begun to shrink in size and influence, according to Philippine and Western officials. Partly as a result, military action has declined on several key battlefields.
Recently captured documents show that the apparent executions of scores of suspected government agents found in two so-called killing fields in Quezon and Laguna, plus the capture or surrender of several dozen guerrilla leaders, have led to open bickering and have hurt recruitment of new supporters and soldiers.
"This year has been very significant," said a Western diplomat who studies the guerrilla army. "The party's going through real divisions. It's at a real crossroads."
Captured documents indicate that the guerrilla force has about 7,600 armed troops. The Philippine army estimates the NPA's strength at 23,060, but officials acknowledge that the figure includes village militias and political cadres.
The best evidence of disarray comes from thousands of reports and more than 300 computer disks seized in recent military raids. An internal report of the Communist Party's annual Politburo meeting last March noted, for example, that "for the first time, in many places, there is a lack of people to hold the guns."
The report, seized during the capture of NPA propagandist Satur Ocampo in July in Manila, complained that party membership fell by "several thousands" in 1988. "Whole guerrilla fronts have been lost because of the inadequacy of cadre, neglect of the mass base" and military "mistakes," the report said.
Party discord is now so public that Jose Maria Sison, the party's founder and chairman, wrote newspapers here recently from exile in the Netherlands to criticize former comrades and to complain that the "repeated capture of knowledgeable personnel and documents" has left the movement "open and vulnerable to a considerable extent."
Philippine and Western officials warn that the war is far from over. An economic downturn or political upheaval could revive the long-simmering insurgency. They also fear that a declining NPA may use more terror tactics, including assassination of Americans, to raise its visibility in coming months.
An intercepted letter dated Sept. 9 between two NPA leaders, for example, discussed a plan, code-named Operation Black Label, for the "kidnaping and hostaging of top American military personnel" to exchange for rebel leaders now in prison. U.S. officials fear that the NPA may target Americans while President Corazon Aquino is in the United States from Nov. 7-11.
Suspected NPA guerrillas ambushed and killed two Pentagon civilian employees on a rural road near Clark Air Base last month. In April, rebels gunned down Col. James N. Rowe, a counterinsurgency expert who helped administer U.S. military aid to the Philippines. Three other Americans were killed in 1987.
While some diplomats credit the Philippine military with improved tactics and efficiency, they say that the rebels are suffering most from self-inflicted problems. Moreover, they say that recent government progress is threatened by continued human rights abuses by army troops, widespread corruption among police and lack of follow-up government services and infrastructure in villages formerly controlled by the NPA.
"They may have lost the battle this year, but they certainly haven't lost the war," one Western analyst said of the rebels. "The fundamentals haven't changed."
"The insurgency isn't going to go away until you have significant social and economic reform," said another diplomat. "A military solution without an economic solution isn't a solution. It's a Band-Aid."
The rebels' base remains the impoverished countryside, where a majority of the 58 million Filipinos live. Government figures show that despite economic gains under Aquino, at least half the population lives in poverty and that the poorest third controls only 9% of national income.
Philippine officials are more optimistic, saying that the army has turned the tide and expects to end the insurgency as a military threat by 1992.
"Nationwide, we've seen a reduction in strength, a reduction in activity and, most important, a reduction in support from the people," said Brig. Gen Gerardo N. Flores, head of intelligence for the national police. "They are in decline."
Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos is even more confident. On a recent helicopter tour of Iloilo province on the island of Panay, he insisted that the government is "winning the hearts and minds of the people."
"We can see light at the end of the tunnel," Ramos said, echoing much-mocked U.S. policy-makers in the Vietnam War era. "We can see victory ahead."
At a briefing in Iloilo City, Ramos heard his regional commanders give glowing reports of progress on several southern islands that have long been NPA strongholds. A week earlier, the army captured nine guerrilla leaders from Negros, Samar and Leyte in raids in Cebu.
Brig. Gen. Raymundo T. Jarque said that notebooks taken in the raids showed the NPA had only 316 regulars in Negros, an area long known as the "NPA laboratory." "We have overestimated the NPA on Negros," he said. "By year-end, we hope to reverse the trend of the NPA on Negros, if not totally wipe them out."
Despite gains, the military says that the NPA is fighting on 59 fronts and that it influences or controls political life in nearly 8,000 of the nation's 41,000 villages and urban wards. Urban assassination squads called "sparrows" have killed at least 70 police, military and other officials in Manila this year.
The army has exploited rebel discord by offering rewards of up to $50,000 for top guerrilla leaders. Gruesome posters in villages show decapitated bodies and blame the NPA for the "barbaric, inhuman and godless execution" of 39 men, women and children in a rural church in Digos in southern Mindanao last June 25.
"The NPA has been known to a lot of people as the 'Nice People Around,' " one foreign analyst said. "They'd help when the tax collector came or the landlord raised rent. That image is changing. Now it looks like they murder a lot of people, including a lot of innocent people. If it continues, they will lose their mass base."