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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Estrada and the communists gird for battle

By Anastasia Stanmeyer and Antonio Lopez / Manila

PEACE TALKS HAVE SPUTTERED and President Joseph Ejercito Estrada is losing his patience. At the same time, communist guerrillas in the Philippines have been gaining strength. Indeed, the New People's Army (NPA) is hunkering down for battle. So is Estrada, who was known for his on-screen machismo during his days as a matinee idol. He has been flexing his muscles in preparation for a real-life confrontation that began long before he became the country's leader.

As Estrada sees it, the NPA has shown little good faith in its efforts to resolve its differences with the government. "You do not baby a rebellion, you crush it," he told Filipinos during his State of the Nation address on July 26. The president has ordered the armed forces to begin an all-out offensive against the guerrillas. He is also beefing up the 111,000-strong Philippine National Police to help in the counterinsurgency campaign, supplying it with U.S.- and Taiwan-made hardware. The PNP has asked the president for $12.6 million to buy machine guns and mortars, says police director general Edmundo Larroza.

The NPA has been fighting for a Marxist state for three decades in an insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people. Thirteen years of peace talks between the government and leftist leaders have allowed the communist movement to revive surreptitiously, says Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado. During that time, the National Democratic Front (NDF), the NPA's political arm, reorganized troops and resurrected its demand for a separate state. "That's impossible," says Mercado.

Estrada's tough stance marks a reversal of the conciliatory approach adopted by his predecessors, Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. Keeping a campaign pledge, Aquino released communist leaders jailed by strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Among them was Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison, who went into exile in Europe. Then Ramos - eager to be known as a peacemaker rather than a general and warrior - negotiated patiently with Sison and other rebel chiefs. Manila signed an accord barring such anti-insurgency tactics as food blockades, aerial bombing, forced evacuations and curbs on villagers' movements.

Estrada has asked for high-level talks with the communists to be terminated by Dec. 31 - with or without a peace accord. Negotiations would then take place with the NPA's regional commands. But the CPP has rejected local-level dialogue as a divide-and-rule ruse. As current talks falter, armed clashes are intensifying. "Because of the de facto and formal termination of the peace talks by the government, it is just natural for the NPA to launch more offensives," said Sison in a recent radio interview. The guerillas would try to seize more firearms from the military and police, he added, as well as target U.S. soldiers participating in military exercises under the new Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement. One military official dismissed the threats as mere propaganda.

But the signs are that the insurgents are gaining strength and stepping up recruitment. The NPA grew rapidly under the harsh rule of Marcos, which ended with the People Power revolt in 1986. By military accounts, guerrilla strength peaked at 25,200 fighters in 1987, the first year of Aquino's presidency. The number hit a low of 6,020 in 1995 under Ramos. Since then, it has risen steadily, reaching 8,950 by the end of 1998. The guerrillas, with recruits as young as 13, are scattered over 91 fronts in 65 of the country's 80 provinces.

What finally snapped Estrada into action was the NPA's kidnapping on Feb. 17 of army Brig.-Gen. Victor Obillo and his aide, Capt. Eduardo Montealto. They were released after 58 days. The guerrillas have since conducted at least four raids on police and military detachments. The most dramatic was a June 11 assault on a police camp in Batuan, Bohol province. Fifty guerrillas seized 80 high-powered rifles. Five days later, an NPA platoon ambushed a 23-man army patrol in the Calinan and Paquibato districts of Davao province. Six soldiers died and 12 others were wounded.

The government hit back on July 8. Thousands of residents fled the mountainous hinterlands of Davao, one of the NPA's strongholds in the south, after apparent aerial-bombing strikes to flush out insurgents. Four army battalions also were deployed, including the elite Scout Rangers.

The slim chances for a peaceful resolution receded further with recent uncompromising talk from both sides. "Estrada's close association and identification with the U.S. makes him a representative of the enemy," said NDF spokesman Satur Ocampo. "He's out to stamp out the revolutionary movement." The president would at least agree with the last bit. "We will give your rebellion no air to breathe, no space to move, no time to prosper," he vowed during his address to the nation. Looks like high noon, dead ahead.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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