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Philippine communists: how ruthless?

ALL eyes seem fixed on the drama of the February presidential election pitting 20-year strongman Ferdinand Marcos against his challengers: Corazon Aquino, widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., and Sen. Salvador Laurel. But despite the press conferences and the rallies in metropolitan Manila, there is very little press coverage of another story taking place in the Philippines.

That is the continuing growth of the Communist New People's Army (NPA), now fielding an estimated 20,000 fighters scattered around the vast Philippines archipelago. Some observers suggest this group will win power if no effective reform government comes to Manila.

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Who can say just what shape a communist NPA government would take?

A similar question was never fully faced in the United States before the collapse of the Shah in Iran and of Lon Nol in Cambodia.

So why has in-depth reporting on the rebel movement been relatively rare? Part of the answer is that traveling to and reporting from rebel-held areas is difficult -- and risky.

In the December issue of Commentary magazine, Ross H. Munro, a Time magazine correspondent of Canadian background who has spent time in rebel held areas, has raised what might be called ``the worst case scenario.''

His lengthy article, entitled ``The New Khmer Rouge,'' suggests that if the guerrillas were to be victorious, they might someday unleash the killing of hundreds of thousands, as occurred in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

That view is by no means unanimously held. Victorious Vietnamese and Lao did imprison and kill many opponents after their 1975 victories. But the scale appears not to have rivaled the brutality unleashed by their Cambodian counterparts.

The counsel of historians suggests a need for healthy skepticism when anyone claims that some future event will closely duplicate the past.

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Yet that could be small comfort to those who suggest that because of their Roman Catholic religion and easygoing national temperament, Filipino revolutionaries would be incapable of mass killings. Some journalists and others now sheepishly regret similar statements they once made about how the ``friendly'' nature of Buddhist Cambodians would somehow ``moderate'' the nature of Communist Khmer Rouge.

The analogy with Cambodia can be debated. But Mr. Munro does raise an important issue when he suggests the US press has paid far too little attention to the NPA.

Mr. Munro argues that out of political bias some Filipino ``human rights sources'' in Manila refuse to monitor communist atrocities or inform newsmen of what they do know. The NPA also threatens further executions if relatives or friends of victims tell too much.

Today the NPAs are estimated to have fighters in at least 59 of the Philippine 73 provinces. If no reformist alternative emerges, and the NPA gradually takes control, it may not rule exactly as did the Khmer Rouge. But the pattern of revolutionary terror and assassination that has already emerged is plenty of reason for concern.

Frederic A. Moritz is associate professor of journalism at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa., and a former Asia correspondent based in Hong Kong.

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