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Aquino forges ahead

Corazon Aquino has been given a second political honeymoon. And she's lost no time enjoying it. Voter approval of her proposed Constitution last week by an official count of 76 to 24 percent provided just the kind of mandate the Philippines' President wanted to deal with three important issues:

Communists: Despite the lapse of a 60-day cease-fire yesterday and renewed fighting, Mrs. Aquino kept the door open for national negotiations with recalcitrant rebel leaders, knowing that she now has the political upper hand. Previously, she insisted upon a cease-fire during talks.

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Land reform: Her government launched an ambitious and expensive land reform program yesterday, using Aquino's new-found authority to take on the explosive issue before Congress begins under the new charter in July.

Elections: Aquino planned to huddle with political associates today to plot out how to translate her popularity into getting her candidates elected to Congress. Elections are scheduled for May 11, and she must select her slate in the next few weeks.

Communist leaders, represented by the National Democratic Front (NDF), formally pulled out of political talks with the government Jan. 31, and announced last week they would not seek an extension to the national cease-fire agreement. This action quickly closed an unusual period in which a few communist leaders and thousands of guerrillas were able to move freely in the Philippines for the first time in 18 years of civil war.

Diplomats and leftist sources indicate that a dramatic internal struggle under way within the Communist Party of the Philippines accounts for the pullout. The debate is over tactics: whether to resume all-out guerrilla warfare or to pursue political and electoral opportunities under the democratic government. One diplomat reports that the party Politburo is split 11 to 5 in favor of armed struggle.

Teofisto Guingona, the government's chief negotiator with the NDF, said Sunday: ``The refusal of the NDF to return to the negotiating table betrays a hard-line position of a few communist leaders. They are dramatically opposed to the desire of the people and many of their own members who genuinely want peace.

``The government will keep the door to peace open, but it will not cede to unwarranted demands. It will pursue reconciliation with honor, but will never yield to inordinate conditions.''

The division among the communists was evident in the different positions taken on the Constitution by their various front groups, some favoring a ``critical yes.''

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But in the January issue of the party's underground newsletter, Ang Bayan (The People), the leadership strongly criticized those leaning toward working with Aquino. It charged them with being ``mesmerized'' and not seeing that the government could ``sway the backward elements of the masses'' (or the peasants) and was becoming ``rapidly pro-imperialist and reactionary.''

To take advantage of the division, the government says it will try to arrange local cease-fires and negotiations, hoping to do so in as many as 10 of the nation's 13 regions. At least two local cease-fires were achieved late last year. In areas without a cease-fire, Defense Minister Rafael Ileto says, the ``new'' Armed Forces of the Philippines will begin a gradual escalation against guerrillas.

And in two weeks, Aquino plans to announce a full-scale amnesty program for rebels who surrender, enticing them with jobs, land, and money.

As in walkouts during negotiations last year, the NDF left open the chance for new talks, saying this time that the government must: (1) attack society's problems ``at their roots;'' (2) assert control over the military; (3) recognize the NDF as a political entity; and (4) work for a ``genuine settlement of the armed and political conflict.''

The communists will likely be watching closely the negotiations that begin today between the government and Muslim rebels, in hopes of seeing how flexible Aquino can be.

The President threw another roadblock in front of the rebels yesterday when her government announced the details of a $1.75 billion land reform plan, which will take months to start up and relies heavily on foreign donors.

The plan was put forth now for two reasons: to help Aquino recover politically from the killing of more than a dozen land reform protesters on Jan. 22; and to quickly take advantage of the massive Feb. 2 vote to push through some reforms.

The plan is to help landless farmers, says Agrarian Reform Minister Heherson Alvarez. ``If in the process ... we pull the rug from beneath the feet of the rebels, so be it....''

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