GENERAL LUNA, PHILIPPINES -- "The end game," said the communist guerrilla lecturer, pausing for effect, "is a general insurrection."

The speaker, a fiery, rail-thin veteran of 16 years of war, scrawled her words on a warped blackboard, underlining "insurrection." Satisfied, she triumphantly announced: "After the general insurrection is achieved, we will launch the final offensive."

The words sent a ripple through the crude jungle classroom, and the attentive guerrillas stirred with anticipation.

Eighteen years after a group of 50 communist intellectuals and peasants launched the New People's Army guerrilla movement on the rice plains north of Manila, dreams of toppling the government with a "final offensive" remain strong. What remains a point of debate among Communist Party strategists, Philippine government officials and foreign diplomats is how close the communists have come to their dream.

The guerrilla leaders say a "final offensive" is probably at least five years away. Jose Maria Sison, the Communist Party founder who remains a symbolic leader of the struggle, has predicted that President Corazon Aquino's centrist government will become overwhelmed by social and economic crises, setting the stage for a general insurrection in three to five years.

Aquino came to power pledging to seek a political settlement with the guerrillas, and months of negotiations resulted in the signing of a 60-day cease-fire Dec 10. But the truce lapsed in February with negotiations stalled, and the guerrillas have escalated their attacks.

Earlier this month, this reporter spent six days with the New People's Army guerrillas and Communist Party officials in Quezon Province, 140 miles southeast of Manila, interviewing strategists and attending sessions. These observations emerged:

For all the efforts of communist leaders to project the image that the guerrilla war is being led by a politically diverse "National Democratic Front," the Communist Party maintains control.

There is the strong belief among some senior party officials that Aquino's popularity has made it necessary to seek "tactical alliances" with non-Marxist "moderates," creating tension with doctrinaire party officials who argue that the revolution must not compromise its Marxist-Maoist principles.

Since the party's disastrous boycott of the 1986 presidential election between Ferdinand Marcos and Aquino, communist regional officials are being allowed greater input in the formulation of policy. It appears that greater criticism of party decisions is being tolerated.

After 18 years of guerrilla war, and despite the deaths or imprisonment of most of the original rebel leaders, the party remains the driving force behind the insurgency. Most of the young guerrillas interviewed in a jungle camp said their first work in the "movement" came in political organizing among the peasants.

Party control is evident everywhere. Party political officers are assigned to guerrilla units, and guerrilla ballads and anthems extol the party as "our guide."

A shy, giggly 18-year-old with chubby cheeks and a ponytail who gave her nom de guerre as Comrade Heidi said she began doing "organizing work" when she was 13. After three years, she became a full-time armed guerrilla.

A key element of the communist strategy for staging a general insurrection is the infiltration of legal political and social organizations in the cities. Evidence suggests the communists are making significant advances in this area.

A woman assigned to the party's southern Quezon front committee said that until February she had worked in Manila at an internationally funded ecumenical religious organization. Prior to that, she had worked at a well-known Catholic Church human rights agency and had taught at an exclusive Catholic high school, she said.

During her years in Manila, she worked with slum dwellers, organizing legal activists secretly linked to the Communist Party, she said. Another Quezon political officer of the party said his wife works in a legal organization in Manila and secretly heads a party "collective," the smallest organizational cell.

Guerrilla leaders said they have tried to learn from the experiences of movements in China, and more recently Vietnam and Nicaragua. Veterans said the movement has refined "uniquely Filipino" strategies and ideology through years of trial and error.

Comrade Tibbs, a university-educated, senior party official who joined the movement in 1971 at age 18, recalled that the early years of the movement were heavily influenced by the writings of Mao.

"When we first joined, our strength and inspiration was what Mao told us. We allowed only revolutionary songs -- no western music. We did not allow English to be spoken. We were very dogmatic," she said.

But the early dogmatism has been relaxed. Communist officials say they now view Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution as a more relevant model. The Philippines shares with Nicaragua a Spanish colonial and Catholic heritage.

While the guerrilla movement here apparently has grown without the support of a foreign government, communist leaders now speak openly of their desire to secure foreign assistance.

"Even if we don't get substantial foreign aid, we've already proven our ability to survive independently for nearly two decades," a communist official said.