President Corazon Aquino, making her first official trip outside the capital since she took office three months ago, today ordered the military to protect 168 persons described as Communist rebels who had surrendered and outlined a proposal for regional cease-fires.
Aquino met the Communist rebels at a Carmelite convent soon after arriving in the Philippines' third largest city for "consultations" with different groups.
The surrenders represented the first major results of an effort by the Roman Catholic Church to persuade guerrillas of the New People's Army to give up their struggle now that president Ferdinand Marcos has been deposed.
The surrenders also have provided some impetus to a rebel rehabilitation program, known as the "Davao experiment," that is being developed here by the church and local businessmen in cooperation with the military.
Aquino, who was driven around Davao in a bullet-proof vehicle, was cheered by tens of thousands of enthusiastic residents who tossed confetti as her motorcade passed through streets lined with yellow ribbons.
Military officers said they hoped Aquino's meeting with what was described as the largest group of Communist rebels to surrender since Marcos fell Feb. 25 would prompt more insurgents to abandon their 17-year guerrilla war.
Some church sources and other Davao residents, mindful of fake surrenders arranged by the military under Marcos in the past, expressed skepticism about the rebel credentials of some of those who met Aquino today. Authorities did not allow reporters to attend the meeting on the grounds that the rebels feared publicity would expose them to reprisals by their former comrades.
Later, in a speech after discussions with various groups at the Central Bank building here, Aquino said she would discuss with Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile the possibility of negotiating regional cease-fires with the rebels, instead of one national truce.
Aquino said that initially the cease-fires would last 60 days, with the possibility of extensions. She said any truce would leave the armed forces in place, ruling out withdrawing them to barracks. She also rejected the idea of giving rebels who surrender cash for their weapons, as was the practice under Marcos. Instead, she said, guns would be exchanged for rehabilitation, which could include job training and possibly plots of land.
Aquino indicated that 83,000 acres of military-controlled land on this southern island of Mindanao could be used in such a rehabilitation program. Cabinet ministers gave contradictory statements on whether government funds would be available to finance rehabilitation efforts.
Information Minister Teodoro Locsin said the government would watch the progress of local rehabilitation programs and discouraged expectations of government funding. But Agrarian Reform Minister Heherson Alvarez said about $900,000 was being committed to rehabilitation efforts.
In her meeting with the former rebels today, Aquino stressed that she did not want to make promises she could not keep, such as providing jobs.
"But there is one thing I can promise, and that is your safety," she told the group. She then ordered Brig. Gen. Jose Magno, the southern commander, to protect them.
"They fear for their lives," said one local official involved in Davao's rehabilitation program. Military officers said several rebels who surrendered have been killed recently by the New People's Army.
Magno said the former rebels had not yet pledged allegiance to the Aquino government, but would do so in about a week after amnesty papers were processed for them.
Col. Romeo Recinia said the military had reached "a gentlemen's agreement" with some of the rebels in this region allowing them to recover their weapons and travel freely "back to the hills" if they were dissatisfied with the surrender arrangements.
The highest ranking of the surrendering rebels came in this morning, Magno said. He identified the guerrilla leader as Alexander Navarro, known as Commander Saulo, the leader of about 100 fighters in regional front 15. Military sources said most of the 168 rebels who surrendered had come in since Marcos' fall.