President Corazon Aquino today expressed confidence that she could handle the Philippines' Communist insurgency without "help" offered by deposed president Ferdinand Marcos and said secret contacts on a proposed truce were under way.
Aquino said at a news conference that "definitely progress is being made" in dealing with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army. But she said a formal cease-fire has been held up by the refusal so far of top Communist leaders to negotiate with the government, which currently lacks the resources to offer a rehabilitation program for surrendering rebels.
Aquino made the statements amid signs of increasing military restiveness over an escalation of Communist rebel attacks since her government came to power Feb. 25 in a military-led popular revolt. According to the military, about 750 troops, rebels and civilians have been killed in insurgency-related incidents since then. The intensified fighting has dimmed hopes that the flight of Marcos into exile would prompt many of the estimated 16,000 Communist guerrillas to lay down their arms.
Asked about Marcos' offer yesterday to return to the Philippines and help the Aquino government avert a Communist takeover or a military coup, Aquino said, "For the time being, I'd much rather Mr. Marcos stayed away. I think I can handle the insurgency problem, and it will be better if he is not here because that will only make matters worse as far as the Filipinos are concerned."
Marcos made the offer by telephone in a news conference with correspondents in Manila. Speaking from his exile home in Hawaii, Marcos asserted that "I can help in preventing a civil war." He said his only purpose in returning to Manila would be "to ensure that the Philippines does not come under a totalitarian regime." However, he said he would not renounce his "legitimate election" as president Feb. 7 in a contest he was accused of rigging to defeat Aquino.
After spurning Marcos' offer, the president, the widow of Marcos' assassinated archrival, Benigno Aquino Jr., said that some secret talks with the Communists have taken place recently. But she denied that she had taken part in them personally and declined to identify her "emissaries."
No formal cease-fire has been agreed on yet, "because we are still waiting for the top leadership of the Communist Party to indicate to us when we will meet and where we will meet," Aquino said. "My emissaries have also indicated that we are very anxious to have a dialogue with them so that we can finally formalize the cease-fire."
Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo said after the news conference that "contacts," rather than negotiations, were under way with the Communists.
"We are not talking about substantive or procedural aspects" at this point, he said. "It is only to put the two groups together."
Aquino said that while she had been told some rebels were preparing to abandon the New People's Army's 17-year struggle, "the government is not yet in a financial capacity to offer a rehabilitation program to these returnees."
While waiting for the top Communist Party leadership to respond to the government's call for negotiations on a cease-fire, the military is in a "defensive posture," Aquino said. However, a presidential spokesman said later that the Armed Forces might take the view that "the best defense is an offense."
Communist rebels lately have been especially active in the northern Philippines, notably in Cagayan Province, the home turf of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.
Last week the military claimed a rare victory in the province when about 30 guerrillas were reported killed after they were pinned down by helicopter gunships.
The government also appears to be moving to take advantage of a split in rebel ranks in the mountainous northern Philippines. A renowned guerrilla leader, former Roman Catholic priest Conrado Balweg, recently broke with the New People's Army and formed his own rebel group with an estimated 80 to 100 followers.
In an apparent move to capitalize on the split, Defense Minister Enrile today broached the prospect of creating an "autonomous region" for the breakaway rebels.