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''The communist party told us to go out and start an armed struggle,'' a guerrilla in the Philippines recalled recently, ''but what with?. . . We had just our bare hands and a few vague ideas about military strategy.''

The communist rebellion in this Asian island nation has become more organized in the last decade, causing concern in both Manila and Washington as the communist strength increases, especially in the southern island of Mindanao.

In the 1970s, Mindanao was the scene of a Muslim revolt, waged by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) seeking independence from the mainly-Catholic Philippines. But while that war is tapering off, the communist-led guerrillas of the New People's Army (the NPA, or the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines) has enlarged.

The 1980s may well be their decade for challenging the government of American-back Ferdinand Marcos.

Both movements began to expand around the same time in Mindanao, the turbulent days just before President Marcos' declaration of martial law in September 1972 (which was offically lifted in 1980). Although neither has posed a serious threat to the Marcos regime, their role in a possibly turbulant post-Marcos period is uncertain. And with important air and naval bases in the Philippines, the United States keeps close watch on any rise in rebellion.

Mindanao is the Philippines' last frontier - an island as big as Kentucky with a striking landscape of high hills, deep gorges and extinct volcanoes. Its population, now about 10 million, has increased fourfold since 1948, squeezing the original inhabitants, animist tribes and Muslims, back to the fringes of the land they once had to themselves.


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