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In capitalist Asia, Philippines still grapples with communists

An escalation in leftist violence stretches the Army and embattled government.

Out beyond the picket line and the shuttered mill, the sugar fields of this vast plantation stretch to the horizon. To Rene Tua, a union activist whose father and grandfather also toiled on this land, it's a bittersweet vision.

"I don't think it's fair for one family to own such a large piece of land. The farmers are the original owners ... and they should be given their land back," he says.

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The mill fell silent last year after unionists rejected a pay offer and led nearly 6,000 workers on strike. A week later, several men died during a clash with troops at the picket line. In October, a union leader was shot dead at a bar near his house, one of many unsolved murders of political activists in the area.

As the violence has escalated, Philippine officials have fingered an old familiar foe: communist agitators. Behind the strike, they say, is the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), stoking rural discontent and antigovernment unrest. Hundreds of suspected insurgents have reportedly been detained during raids in and around Luisita.

The reasons for the resilience of the Filipino communist insurgency - the longest-running in Asia - are simple, say analysts. Poverty and social inequity are growing, and the political levers are held by the landowning Philippine elite, which has dragged its feet on agrarian reform since the restoration of democracy in 1986.

While much of Asia has ditched communism for capitalism, the idea of a workers' paradise persists in the Philippines, both in rural heartlands and the university campuses of Manila. But the political left has yet to gain the kind of momentum that propelled Brazilian premier Lula de Silva or other left-leaning leaders into office.

In the countryside, insurgents provide a brand of "revolutionary justice" in a society that often rides roughshod over the poor. "If someone steals your carabao [water buffalo], the police are unlikely to be able to do anything about it. But the NPA might," says Steven Ruud, director of the Asia Foundation in Manila.

With little sign of political reforms, only a military solution is on the table. Government troops are also battling Islamic militants in the southern Philippines, backed by US aid and training, stretching their forces thin.

At its peak in the 1980s, the NPA commanded more than 25,000 troops and drew middle-class support for fighting former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Its ranks have since dwindled to an estimated 8,000, and many observers are skeptical of claims of a renewed insurgency.

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"There's no way that the NPA can challenge the Army, nor does it threaten to overthrow the government," says Scott Harrison, managing director of PSA, a security consultancy in Manila.

Security officials see little daylight between urban protesters and Communist insurgents in the countryside. Their antileft rhetoric has intensified in recent months as President Gloria Arroyo has faced calls to resign over alleged electoralfraud.

Norberto Gonzales, the national security adviser to President Arroyo, hints at a conspiracy to undermine the government, citing an upsurge in rebel activity. "They're clearly escalating their actions to compliment what's going on in the cities, to contribute to a destabilizing environment," he says.

Unionists reject claims of communist subversion, while acknowledging support from left-wing organizations. They accuse the Army, in turn, of waging a dirty war in the name of national security. Much of their anger is directed at Army Gen. Jovito Palparan, a veteran counter-insurgency officer who was moved Sept. 1 to command the 7th infantry division in central Luzon.

Since then, according to Karapatan, a human-rights group based in Manila, 18 left-wing activists, including Luisita union leader Ricardo Ramos, have been murdered or abducted. Activists allege that General Palparan is behind the killings, a charge he dismisses as communist propaganda. "We have laws to follow, we aren't allowed to do that," he says.

At the Hacienda Luisita, which was sold in 1957 by its Spanish founders to the powerful Cojuangco family, calls for land to be redistributed to farmers have gone unanswered. Workers were given shares in a listed company in 1989 under a government scheme, but unionists say the dividends are meager and don't compensate for low wages and job insecurity.

Armed with a backhoe, Benvenido Capan, a retired gardener, plants a row of beans next to a tract of rotted sugar cane that went uncut this season.

Capan has low expectations. "The strikes are always the same. We ask and they don't give.... I wish we could own some land," he says.