MANILA -- It could have been any one of the hundreds of Christmas parties held here daily this holiday season. A buffet table overflowed with platters of food, including barbecued beef and a whole roast pig. Local rum and imported Scotch flowed freely. Christmas decorations adorned trees in a narrow courtyard, and disco music blared from a stereo.

But this party could be reached only by negotiating a maze of concrete paths and checkpoints to a compound surrounded by multiple barbed-wire fences deep inside Camp Crame, a military base in Manila. The celebrants were imprisoned rebel military officers charged with taking part in a coup attempt last December against the government of President Corazon Aquino.

On the whole, they seemed an unrepentant lot. Many wore T-shirts advertising their allegiance to three main military rebel groups: the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, known as RAM; the Soldiers of the Filipino People, founded by officers loyal to former president Ferdinand Marcos; and the Young Officers Union (YOU), a shadowy outfit that advocates a military-led "revolution."

In interviews, the rebel officers acknowledged that the YOU has opened contacts with the Communist Party of the Philippines, which has been waging an insurgency for 21 years through its armed wing, the New People's Army.

A cardboard sign on one of the bungalow-type cells in the compound read, "Our dreams shall never die," a slogan not to be confused with the vow taped to a refrigerator in the courtyard: "Our drinks shall never dry." Snoozing nearby was the inmates' mascot, a yellow dog they call "Cory."

With court-martial proceedings against the 1989 coup plotters currently stalled, the rebel officers are biding their time in hopes that a new -- this time successful -- coup attempt will eventually free them.

Since Aquino assumed the presidency in 1986 following a popularly backed military mutiny against Marcos, there have been seven coup attempts or military rebellions. At least 168 persons, most of them civilians, have been killed in the revolts.

In recent weeks, Aquino's position has been weakened by sharp, highly unpopular fuel price increases, a scandal over a $3.5 million remodeling project to create a supposedly "bulletproof" executive mansion for her and a growing public impression that her government is stumbling aimlessly from one crisis to the next. Two cabinet secretaries have been forced to resign this month amid allegations of administrative bungling and conflict of interest, and four senators -- three of them former Aquino supporters -- have publicly called for her resignation.

Aquino has ruled out running again in elections scheduled for May 1992, and her main goal now appears to be to finish her six-year term. Government and military officials insist that the rebels lack popular and military support for another coup attempt, but the jailed rebel officers see the country's economic slide as a factor that could upset that assessment.

"Because of the economic situation now, maybe the soldiers realize that this regime has to go," said Col. Romelino Gojo, 44, a Marine trained at Quantico, Va. "If we can do it by the fast track, why not? We don't want to prolong the agony of the people."

"The events now unfolding actually vindicate the actions of our group," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jose Comendador, a RAM sympathizer and the highest-ranking officer of 78 held in Camp Crame. "People are realizing it now because it's affecting their dining tables. Probably another coup would just be a coup de grace."

"The way this government is being run, probably a chimpanzee could do a better job," said Capt. Danilo Lim, 35, a West Point graduate. "A lot of nonmilitary factors can trigger another military rebellion," added Lt. Col. Rafael Galvez, 43, who commanded a force of elite Scout Rangers in the 1989 coup attempt. "Most of our lieutenants who get married these days are way below the poverty line."

Lim and Galvez support the YOU, which appears to have a strong following among the jailed military rebels. Several wore T-shirts bearing slogans such as, "The country needs YOU," and "I love YOU."

"Earlier, the objective of the movement was just to reform the armed forces," Galvez said. "Now it has developed into what we feel is a real revolutionary movement. We see Cory {Aquino} as the product of a very rotten system. That's why we aim to change the system and end the stranglehold of traditional elite politicians in our society."

Lim described the YOU as one of seven groups under a "multisectoral" umbrella organization called Aklas Pilipino that advocates a "non-Communist alternative." Other groups include students, workers and young professionals, he said. "The YOU is more concerned with expansion of the mass base into other sectors of society," Lim said. "The RAM does not have that capability."

Of the three military rebel groups, a Western analyst said, "the YOU is the much more dangerous and invidious one. The RAM is without; the YOU is within." He said the YOU's strength stems from its "linkages and influence in a majority of {military} units," including "headquarters elements." The group is especially strong among the armed forces' bloated corps of nearly 5,300 captains, more than twice the authorized strength at that rank and the source of a bottleneck in promotions.

Although authorities generally have played down the influence of YOU members in the military, a senior Philippine military intelligence officer acknowledged that "the appeal they have certainly has some effect on some of our younger officers. . . . What they're using to propagate the movement are basically the techniques" of the Communist Party.

While there has been no sign yet of any joint actions, he said, the military rebels have agreed to tone down their earlier anti-Communist rhetoric and recently gave the Communists some requested explosives as a token of goodwill.

According to Philippine Constabulary Capt. Diosdado Valeroso, a founding YOU member who was arrested in October, talks between the YOU and the Communists have produced no decisions beyond an agreement to keep meeting.

"There is no tactical alliance," Galvez said. "But communication between the two groups is unavoidable."