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Iron butterfly

IN the male-dominated world of Asia, many a mere man has misjudged the inner steel of those charmingly soft-spoken and lissome Asian women who glide through the streets of Thailand and Indonesia and the Philippines and other such lands. Corazon Aquino, President of the Philippines, is turning out to be one such misjudged.

Less than two months ago, Mrs. Aquino retreated to a Roman Catholic convent in tears and despair to seek comfort from Carmelite nuns in the face of political challenge and turmoil.

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But today Aquino has found new strength and emerged as an iron butterfly.

She has restructured her coalition Cabinet, firing foes and incompetents on both the left and the right. She gave communist insurgents an ultimatum and has moved them from dawdling negotiation to a 60-day cease-fire. She has sent her principal challenger for the presidency, former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, at least temporarily into eclipse. She is wheeling and dealing with her military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos, to make sure the Army remains loyal.

This is a new Mrs. Aquino, taking charge after weeks of criticism. The critics complained that, after her great victory earlier this year over former President Ferdinand Marcos, she had allowed her administration to lapse into factionalism, confusion and inaction. Now, out of patience with the left, and frustrated by the maneuverings of the right, Aquino has exhibited political steel.

Nobody can be sure how this belated decisiveness will play out. The gravest problem in the Philippines is a stricken economy. Millions of Filipinos took heart from Aquino's ascendancy to power, but have yet to see any tangible improvement in their own standard of living.

Enter the communists, who are theoretically silencing their weapons to gain some semblance of power and influence through negotiation.

The communists stood aloof from the Aquino-Marcos contest, missing the Aquino bandwagon as a result. That miscalculation is widely believed to have done them harm.

Now they are playing sophisticated catch-up politics. They will be able to open an office in Manila and seek respectability both at home and abroad. Many believe some of their recent statements are intended to be assuring and seductive to the political center in the Philippines - the forces the left must win if they are to achieve power by orthodox means.

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Meanwhile, the right wing looks upon all this with disfavor. Civilian and military factions on the right are opposed to negotiations with the communists.

Thus we will likely see a polarization of the political left and right, with the center as the prize.

In this confrontation, Aquino will be counting, to various degrees, on a number of key players.

First there is the Roman Catholic Church, which wields remarkable political heft in the Philippines, and to which she is dedicated.

Then there is the Army, which, under General Ramos, has so far remained loyal to Aquino, but is making it clear that it wants to see changes made. The Cabinet shifts, the tougher attitude toward the communists, and improved conditions for the military all probably result from quiet consultation between Aquino and Ramos.

Then there is the United States, whose moral support is important for Mrs. Aquino, but which cannot be seen to be manipulating her. Probably the most useful act the US could perform would be to snip the Honolulu telephone wire that connects former President Marcos so frequently to his old cronies in the Philippines. Much of the right-wing mischief fomented against Aquino can be traced back to him.

But given the impossibility of such action, the United States must continue to make clear, as it has been doing, that Mrs. Aquino gets tangible and political support from the US. Especially now that she has emerged from her cocoon and become an iron butterfly.

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