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Buying Time in Manila

PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino's government once promised a social movement of ``people's power'' to solve the deep problems of that country. Today, short-term solutions to deep structural problems are merely buying time, as few reforms have made a difference to the impoverished majority of Filipinos. Following the flight of Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, the Aquino government acted decisively to fuel expectations for change.

The President facilitated a cease-fire with the communist insurgency, followed by the opening of peace negotiations. She vowed genuine land reform for landless peasants, respect for human rights, and trials for past human rights abusers. Finally, Mrs. Aquino encouraged openness to political activity - ``democratic space'' for organizations and individuals to petition the government for economic and social reform.

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But repeated military coup attempts forced Aquino away from her pledges of reform. The promised land reform program, written and passed by the landlords of the Philippine Congress, offered little relief for the landless. The President has abandoned all efforts to seek a negotiated settlement of the 20-year-old insurgency and has proclaimed ``total war'' against the underground. Few military personnel have been brought to trial for human rights violations against innocent civilians.

With a free hand, the Philippines armed forces have launched a campaign to defeat the guerrillas in the countryside by winning the ``hearts and minds'' of the peasants. The military is also attempting to isolate legal leftist and social-change organizations. As a result, Filipino human rights workers, church leaders, peasant organizers, and lawyers have become targets for right-wing death squads or the armed forces. Civilians are increasingly being caught in free-fire zones as the armed forces aggressively seek out the insurgents.

During a recent month-long visit to the Philippines, I found that the effects of these ``total war'' policies have been devastating. ``Democratic space'' has almost disappeared, as the threat of military and vigilante terror causes legal groups to either stop or limit their work. The military has created a climate of fear by selectively dragging off human rights, peasant, and religious leaders for harassment, torture, or death.

Human rights abuses by the military have rapidly grown, to the point where some observers claim the situation is worse than under Marcos. Both Amnesty International and the US State department reported at the end of 1988 that observance of human rights had seriously deteriorated during the past year.

Yet we continue to hear only good news about the country. The private sector is growing, and the economy is expanding at a healthy 6 percent annual rate. Growth is being built on expanded exports, import liberalization, and increased foreign investment. Many overseas Filipinos are beginning to invest in the country again. The middle and upper classes have a new sense of optimism. This confidence may blind both Washington and Manila to deeper structural problems ahead. The Philippines economic boom has only widened the gap between rich and poor. Little wealth has trickled down to rural or urban squatter communities. The weak land reform program lurches slowly ahead.

The insurgency, while on the defensive, shows no sign of fading. Massive foreign debt, estimated at nearly $30 billion, continues to claim the largest part of the government's budget. Official corruption is an everyday story. The influential Cardinal of Manila, Jaime Sin, publicly criticized Aquino, asserting that in the past three years ``the old politics has come back, to the dismay of us all ... the land flowing with milk and honey is still out there, still far away.''

Aquino's programs, backed by billions in foreign aid, may succeed in the short term. Yet the same factors and structures that drew international attention to the Philippines during the last years of the Marcos regime remain in place.

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With a growing reluctance in the US Congress to spend money for foreign assistance, the United States is unlikely to continue indefinitely its massive financial support for the Philippine government. Unless true social and economic reforms are initiated, the situation can only grow worse over time. The future could present much deeper decisions about US involvement.

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