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Communist Twilight: A Die-Hard's View

After years in jungles and jails Filipino communist leader is still a believer - a letter from Manila

FROM one old communist to another, Jesus Lava says he thinks Mikhail Gorbachev was right.

What went wrong for the head of the former Soviet Union was timing, says a former leader of Philippine communists.

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"There should be no conflict between communism and democracy," says Mr. Lava, a theoretician of a movement that has become Southeast Asia's last remaining communist insurgency. "The basic orientation of Gorbachev is correct. The basic openness of democracy is long overdue. His error in implementing glasnost and democracy was its suddenness."

After a lifetime spent in jungles and jails for the cause of communism, Lava insists he remains a true believer. Yet, with communism collapsed or shaken worldwide, the 77-year-old physician who once master-minded armed uprising says reform, not hard-line entrenchment, is the only hope for survival.

Today, from a homey bungalow in a modest Manila neighborhood, Lava, a lanky, intense man with a ready smile and legendary temper, muses on what went wrong. The Soviet Union, once communism's most formidable empire, has disintegrated.

China remains a pariah after the 1989 devastation of Tiananmen Square. And the Philippine movement is splintered and under pressure. "I think the cause of communism has been set back for a century," he admits. Communism's crisis stems from many mistakes, the worst being the internal resistance to democracy, he says. Take China's aging communists, for example.

"While I deplore violence, their position to keep their hold on power was right in a way," he says, blaming the Tiananmen massacre on leadership errors. "They should immediately start democratization within the party but introduce it gradually."

Lava's conversion from insurgency to peaceful politics was at the heart of the bitter split among Filipino communists in 1968 and his own resignation from the party three years ago, he says.

In a clash of personality and ideology, Lava broke with Jose Maria Sison, founder of the faction that continues guerrilla warfare in the Philippines. Lava, whose family dominated Philippine communism for three decades, was general secretary of the Philippine Communist Party from 1950 until his arrest by the government in 1964. He spent more than a decade in prison.

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Maintaining that their cause is first and foremost nationalistic, Philippine communists say resistance to American dominance is the cornerstone of their struggle. In recent years, the main target has been US military bases, now being phased out.

And yet, for Lava, his own party's bitter schism and communism's failures have not quieted the pathos that drew him into years as a guerrilla. Working as a doctor in Manila slums, he first saw the poverty and felt the doubts that lead him to communism.

"It was pitiful," said Lava, removing his wire-rim glasses to wipe away tears. "You begin to think as a doctor that you have no chance of remedying those things, that there's something basically wrong with society."

Almost a half decade after Lava joined the movement, poverty and feudalism are still endemic in the Philippines, and communism is faltering but still a thorn to the Philippine government and military. Despite major military victories and arrests of key leaders, the insurgency frays the beleaguered Philippines as eight to 10 soldiers, rebels, and civilians die in fighting every day.

With a national election scheduled in 1992, communist guerrillas shun politics but are expected to covertly back leftist candidates and use force to intimidate opponents. Lava does not think they will have much impact. Indeed, he now believes that communism's twilight has spurred Philippine nationalism.

"A lot of nationalists would not fight against American neo-colonialism because they're afraid of getting tagged as communists," he says. "The setback of communism internationally and in our country has given a boost to anti-Americanism here."

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