Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Manila: more than the `Magsaysay success' is required

IN the Philippines, the truce between the government and the Marxist New People's Army is a welcome respite after years of civil war. Yet, the agreement to cease fighting is built upon a fragile foundation, one that has already been weakened by reports of clashes between the two sides. Both the military and the rebels are extremely skeptical about its efficacy, and each suspects the other of using the truce to strengthen itself militarily in anticipation of the inevitable - an outcome marked by violence rather than good faith negotiations. Even if the truce should hold for the near future, resolution of fundamental issues - such as the question of amnesty, and communist positions supporting land reform and opposing US military bases in the Philippines - will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If negotiations eventually fail, President Corazon Aquino's naming of Rafael Ileto has both immediate and long-term ramifications. In the near future, Ileto is likely to emerge as the key figure in Aquino's cabinet. He is the perfect bridge between the government and its own military, which has been restive in the past. Not only is the new defense minister a former officer highly respected within the armed forces, he also firmly believes - unlike Juan Ponce Enrile, his politically ambitious predecessor - in the primacy of civilian government.

About these ads

Ileto's background also hints at the government's approach if talks with the rebels break down. His main military experience was during the Hukbalahap rebellion, which, like the current insurrection, was a rural-based, Marxist-led insurgency. The earlier rebellion lasted from 1946-54, and Ileto was a key figure in the anti-insurgency effort. He formed and led the elite ``scout rangers'' who specialized in small unit attacks often deep in guerrilla territory. Not only were these tactics successful, the discipline of the rangers and the narrower scope of their operations lessened civilian casualties, an accomplishment in itself.

Ileto will likely apply the lessons from the Huk insurgency to the present conflict if full-scale fighting resumes. This means not only an emphasis on small unit tactics, but also far greater stress on discipline throughout the armed forces. The importance of the latter can hardly be overemphasized. Military abuse has been a major factor in the growth of both rebellions, and curbing such conduct will be an essential part of government attempts to pacify the countryside.

The indications are that Philippine history may be on the verge of repetition. Not only has a key figure from an earlier era - Ileto - returned to the fore, Corazon Aquino resembles in many ways former President Ramon Magsaysay, the person most responsible for suppressing the Huks. When Magsaysay crushed the revolt, he appealed directly to the masses, just as Aquino is doing now. Moreover, his charisma, honesty, and compassion - characteristics shared by the current President - helped to undermine the Huk argument that the government would never listen to peasant grievances.

Yet, the Magsaysay era is not quite the flawless model needed for present success. While Magsaysay's genuine empathy for the poor undercut the appeal of the rebels and an improved military defeated the Huks on the battlefield, he lacked either the political vision or the political will to address the fundamental problems of rural instability. While the government directed enormous sums of money to the countryside, government-sponsored projects were often ill-conceived or of a ``showcase'' nature, and their long-term effects upon the welfare of the peasants were nil. One key measure ignored was comprehensive land reform, a controversial step long opposed by the landed elite, which would have substantively addressed peasant needs and demands.

Should negotiations with the Communists fail and fighting resume, a combination of Aquino's popularity and an improved military will make rebel gains unlikely. Yet, there is little solace in this. If a package of meaningful social and economic reforms is not also forthcoming - the core of which must be comprehensive land reform - the most any victory by the armed forces can bring is an interruption of the violence, not its elimination.

Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.