An organization of church-oriented activists believed responsible for bombings in Manila poses a more serious threat to the Philippines than armed communist guerrillas long active in the countryside, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said today.
It is "the more potent and dangerous group" because of its access to money, high leadership talent, and a religious orientation attractive to many Filipinos, Enrile said in an interview.
At the same time, the defense minister confirmed that official estimates show the number of regulars in the Communits Party's armed force has increased substantially in two years and now stands at 5,400, about half of them armed.
Enrile, defense minister since 1970, is one of the most influential figures in President Ferdinand Marcos' martial-law government and virtually the sole source, other than the president, of official information on the several anti-Marcos organizations trying to undermine the government.
He is currently in charge of tracking down persons responsible for six bombing attacks that have injured more than 60 and killed one.
Enrile said the bombings are the work of a violence-prone faction of an older Christian activist organization that embraces both Roman Catholic and Protestant church members and includes, besides students and workers, a number of doctors, lawyers and engineers.
"This is the more potent and dangerous group," he said, "because they have the capacity to generate more fundings. The quality of leadership is higher and their ideas are more acceptable to our people."
"There is a moral quality to their movement," he added. "Our people are basically very religious and religious people have a strong influence on the people."
So far, he said, only a "small core" of the movement has been identified by authorities. "It is not large yet but it has the potential for becoming a large force if we do not stop them," Enrile said.
His comments were the clearest exposition so far of the seriousness with which the government views the bombings and the potential for more serious trouble from a spreading movement.
During the interview, Enrile occasionally thumbed through a thick report marked "secret," which he described as a new analysis of the organization believed responsible.
The organization is loosely known as Social Democrats and sprang up several years ago as an attempt to apply Christian thought to social issues in the Philippines. Of its four factions, Enrile said, one is proviolence and another does not reject violence as a solution. Out of the violent factions, he said, have grown such splinter groups as the Light a Fire moverment, responsible for a series of Manila fires last year, and the April 6 Liberation Movement, which has claimed responsibility for several of the bombings here since Aug. 22.
"Their tendency is to create a lot of [organizational] names to give an aura of broadness and of bigness," Enrile said.
Although an indigenous movement, it is directed, Enrile asserted, by members of the American-based Movement for a Free Philippines. He cited that movement's leader, Raul Manglapus, and a California businessman, Steve Psinakis, and said longtime Marcos foe Benigno Aquino Jr., now at Harvard, is involved "maybe."
Both Aquino and Manglapus have denied any connections with the bombings in Manila.
[President Marcos said today he wants the death sentence reinstated against Aquino, United Press International reported from Manila.]
[Aquino was one of 30 persons named in arrest warrants by Marcos following last Sunday's bombing of the American Society of Travel Agents convention. The blast injured 20 persons, including seven Americans. Most of the 30 accused live in the United States.]
[Marcos told reporters that he preferred to wait for the Philippine Supreme Court to dismiss the pending appeals by Aquino, a former senator, but would be forced to lift the order even before the court acts "if it is necessary to do so."]
Enrile's estimate that the Communist Party's armed wing, the New People's Army, has 5,400 regulars represents a sharp revision of the rural guerrillas' strength.
For years, the number of officially estimated at about 3,000 and in the eyes of officials had not grown in manpower. The New People's Army operates mainly in northern and central Luzon, north of Manila, and on the rugged eastern island of Samar. It attempts to grow by radicalizing poor farmers and has achieved success in areas where abuses by the Philippine military are especially severe.
Enrile acknowledged the New People's Army has enjoyed "a sizable increase in the past two years, despite martial law," and has found access to better communications and more military equipment. However, only about 2,800 of the regulars are armed, he said.
Despite the New People's Army's growth since 1978, Enrile said he does not regard the armed bands as a serious threat now, observing that their numbers are apparently smaller than before martial law when the guerillas, operated close to Manila.
"It is annoying but does not cause any major instability -- not for a long, long time, anyway," Enrile said.