WORTH DYING FOR By Lewis M. Simons Morrow. 320 pp. $18.95 INSIDE THE PHILIPPINE REVOLUTION By William Chapman Norton. 288 pp. $18.95
Two recent books on the Philippines merit scrutiny because of their authors' long journalistic experience covering that nation's anguished politics.
Lewis M. Simons, Asian bureau chief for the San Jose Mercury News and the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, shared a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award last year for uncovering the story that ultimately toppled a tyrant: the "hidden wealth" of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their cronies. When first published in June 1985, the Mercury News' revelations of the fortune stolen from that desperate country -- some estimates put it in the billions -- revived the Filipino opposition, alerted other journalists to the story and pressured the U.S. Congress to exert pressure of its own on the Reagan administration. The rest is, as they say, history.
Simons' "Worth Dying For" covers the dramatic Philippine changeover beginning with Benigno Aquino's assassination and ending with this year's reaffirmation of President Corazon Aquino in the legislative elections. Its most interesting chapter concerns the uncovering of the story of the hidden wealth. It's almost a textbook for any reporter aspiring to a Pulitzer. There are also pithy chapters on the Philippine press, the Catholic Church, the Communist Party and the oft-teetering economy; the last is especially effective, even heartbreaking, focusing on two representative families from the poor and the middle class.
He adds to the historical record by disclosing that candidate Corazon Aquino received a briefing from the young colonels who began plotting Marcos' overthrow long before last year's election was held. These right-wing military "reformists" told her outright that at best she'd share power with them in a post-Marcos junta whose most powerful member would be strongman Juan Ponce Enrile.
"Worth Dying For" is solid, dependable work. Most of what it narrates has been covered before, but there are many bright spots, including Simons' bang-on portrait of Ferdinand Marcos.
To my knowledge, until now none of this year's wide assortment of Philippine books has focused on the resurrection of the communist New People's Army from its stunning post-Marcos discreditation. (The Philippine left, having urged a boycott of last year's election, turned red from embarrassment when "the people's candidate" prevailed.) William Chapman's "Inside the Philippine Revolution" addresses this situation. It arrives at a time when the United States badly needs instruction on how to aid the new government in dealing with the crippling problems it faces.
Chapman, a former Tokyo bureau chief of The Washington Post, is now a free-lance writer based in Japan. He writes of the rebel movement in its 1960s infancy: "an amateurish exercise taken from textbook histories of other Third World conflicts and fought by neophytes who scarcely knew one end of an automatic rifle from another." The rebellion has become, he continues, "a wholly indigenous war waged by seasoned fighters skilled in the arts of ambush, assassination, and armed propaganda." The 20-year transformation he chronicles is fascinating.
Having wrested the leftist mantle from the discredited Huk movement, the new Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, were at first hilariously impractical. The author summons scenes of eager young urban proselytizers stepping out of their campus experiences into rural districts north of Manila. There they waved copies of Mao Tse-tung's "Little Red Book" and shouted slogans into the bemused faces of peasants who disliked the Chinese and dreamed of escape from poverty to the United States. But -- with the help of the communists' best recruiter, Ferdinand Marcos, who impoverished his country and subverted its democracy -- the left became "more Filipino" and steadily gained more adherents.
The communists' strength had grown so by 1986 that they have survived both their truculent absence from the popular uprising that overthrew Marcos and their boycott of the subsequent elections. Chapman provides many inside views of the party's leadership, which survived the inevitable purges, and he pauses for a last look at today's young guerrillas (educated not in the universities but in mountain hamlets) who seem destined to take a predominant role in the rebellion.
What emerges is an effective portrait of the rebellion's growth and coming of age. Drawing upon years of reportage, and building upon a great many interviews conducted during Year One of the post-Marcos era, Chapman escorts the reader along the length and breadth of the vast archipelago, affording a look into the lives of college-educated radicals and their home-grown colleagues, and the great mass of Filipino poor on whose behalf the communists say they are fighting.
One of the excellent services of Chapman's book is that it humanely illuminates the entrenched social inequities with which Corazon Aquino (and her successors) must contend. Despite the real threat from the left, and from the right (responsible already for at least five serious coup attempts), her most serious challenge lies in beginning the transformation of Philippine society -- that is, if true liberty is ever to come to the Philippines. The reviewer is the author of "Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines."