Lewis M. Simons shared a Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for indelible coverage in the San Jose Mercury News of the corruption of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Bombshell revelations that Marcos was looting the country helped catalyze the People Power movement that toppled the regime and inspired similar demonstrations in the Soviet Union.
The San Jose Mercury News – October 30, 1985
“Revolution Turmoil in Philippines Turns Thoughts Toward Communism”
By Lewis Simons
In Makati, Manila’s financial district, businessmen have met secretly with representatives of the National Democratic Front, an umbrella organization that comprises the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed force, the New People’s Army (NPA).
“Businessmen are becoming more open to the economic appeals of the communists,” said economist Jesus P. Estanislao. “It shows that the communists have done their work well. I notice a significant increase in sympathy among members of the business community and the professionals. There’s no doubt that the businessmen are allowing themselves to be deceived. But this shows how desperate they are.”
This desperation, whether among businessmen frustrated by the seeming unwillingness of President Ferdinand E. Marcos to break the grip of his cronies on the nation’s commerce or among impoverished sugar cane workers whose children are starving, is the grindstone against which the Philippine communists sharpen their weapons.
The desperation increasingly is being shared by the Reagan administration, which views the mounting communist threat as a danger to U.S. security interests in the Pacific. Two weeks ago, President Reagan dispatched one of his closest advisers, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R., Nev.) to Manila to meet with Marcos, urging him to institute widespread reforms in an effort to blunt the communist drive. The meeting, by most accounts, was inconclusive, and there is strong feeling in Washington that Marcos is underestimating the communist threat. Indeed, extensive interviews with planners and operatives of the Democratic Front, the Communist Party and the NPA indicate that the communists have worked out their tactics and goals with great care, pragmatically assessing Philippine conditions.
* As a “home-grown” communist movement, with no supply of arms or funds from abroad, the 12,000-strong NPA does not expect to score a military victory against the 200,000-man government military force. Instead, in the next three to five years the NPA plans to be strong enough to hold some towns for a few days at a time. This condition of “strategic stalemate,” combined with frequent industrial strikes and civil uprisings, would paralyze the nation’s economic base and political machinery.
* Using the stalemate as a springboard, the communists plan a coalition “united front” government with as-yet unspecified anti-Marcos political parties.
* Although Marcos is the communists’ focal point, his removal from power, whether by death or by vote, will not be cause for easing off. The communists expect that anyone who would replace Marcos would be as much a creature of the United States as they say he is.
* The communists’ greatest fear of defeat stems from possible direct military intervention by the United States. With its two largest overseas military facilities located in the Philippines, the United States is deeply worried about the pace with which the communist insurgency has progressed in the last two years. The communists as well as a number of relatively moderate opponents of the Marcos regime want the U.S. bases removed.
* The Philippine revolution will be “nothing like” those in Vietnam or Cambodia. There would be no blood bath after the communist takeover. However, there would be “people’s tribunals” and punishment of those who had committed “crimes against the people.” Such trials already are regularly held in communist-controlled villages, and an unspecified number of executions have been carried out.
* Bearing in mind that 95 percent of the population of 51 million is Christian (85 percent Roman Catholic), freedom of religion would be guaranteed by the communists. Although Marcos continues to insist that the communists are not a major threat and that their plans have little chance of success, statistics show otherwise.
Between April 1983 and March 1985, the guerrillas launched “more than 1,000 operations which vanquished more than 6,000 fascist troops and hauled in no less than 3,200 firearms,” according to the NPA’s official newsletter. Entitled “Red Flag,” this rather sophisticated publication is produced with a word processor and electronic printer in Tagalog, the chief native language of the country, and in English.
According to the acting armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, an average of 15 people – guerrillas, military personnel and civilians caught in cross fire – die each day in NPA-related violence. He said it would be correct to expect the death toll for 1985 to reach 4,500.
The NPA, said Ramos, has initiated 70 percent of the 1,500 incidents reported since January of this year. Damage to various government and privately owned installations so far this year is estimated at $5 million, Ramos said.
In the continuing hope that the Marcos government will address the insurgency head-on, the United States continues to provide military aid to Marcos, at the same time urging him to institute economic, political and military reforms intended to restore popular faith in his government.
Although a deep U.S. concern would be the loss of its military bases, Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, “it would be positively catastrophic if the form of government in this country were to change,” said a senior Western diplomat.
But the reforms undertaken by Marcos at the urging of the United States have been minimal, the diplomat said.
The communists call the changes a “sham.”
“Any reforms we’ve seen to date are sham, no more than Band-Aids on a huge, festering wound,” said a senior Communist Party member. “They make no difference in the lives of the people because under the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship, the entire system is rotten to the core.” The party official, using the name Emmanuel, described himself as “someone with access to the top decision-makers.” This is a phrase sometimes used to refer to members of the party’s Central Committee.
The interview with Emmanuel, like others conducted in Manila and on the central island of Negros, where the communist insurgency is spreading swiftly, was conducted in secrecy following elaborate security arrangements. Real names were not revealed. Membership in the party and its affiliate organizations is illegal, punishable by death. The officials tended to be in their 30s and 40s, and most have been in “the movement” for 10 to 15 years.
Those interviewed refused to discuss the composition of the Central Committee or the decision-making process.
Regarding the guerrilla war now spreading to new fronts, Emmanuel said the Philippine revolution is unique because the country is a group of islands without a “back door” for a flow of arms, such as China once provided North Vietnam. This lack of external aid is a serious impediment.
“We’d dearly love to have foreign support, but whatever’s been offered has had strings attached,” he said. He declined to name the country that made the alleged offer but added: “We’re not interested. We’ve sacrificed too much. We’re not going to let the lion out only to let the tiger in.
“So we can’t really win militarily,” he said. Armed mainly with U.S.-built rifles captured from government forces, the NPA claims to have about 12,000 men and women “regulars,” meaning full-time guerrillas. This force is said to be backed by about 200,000 “militia” members, only some of whom are armed, often with homemade single-shot guns. The NPA is further hampered by the geography of the Philippines, an archipelago of about 7,000 islands.
The Communist Party also claims to hold influence over about 10 million Filipinos, mainly in rural areas.
Counting on expanded guerrilla activity and demoralization of the government’s armed forces, the party predicts it will achieve a state of strategic stalemate within the next five years.
“This is our national target,” said a man calling himself Carlos, the Democratic Front’s chief organizer for the Visayas, the islands clustered southeast of Manila. “At that point, there’ll be a dramatic change in the balance of armed strength; not parity but bigger, more frequent and more extensive offensives.
“Combined with mass popular uprisings and other nationally coordinated activities, we will then be able to paralyze industry and politics and thus gain major concessions from whoever happens to be the dictator at the time.”