In late October, Philippine communist guerrillas raided the compound of a South Korean construction company that had refused to pay "revolutionary taxes" to the movement. The attackers burned dump trucks and other equipment.
In another incident in this same province on Luzon Island, about 30 communist rebels stormed a police station, abducting the officer in charge and grabbing weapons and communications equipment.
Suspected communist rebels also hit in Mindoro Oriental province, attacking another police outpost and seizing guns, typewriters and radio transmitters.
More than a decade after Asia's last active communist insurgency appeared headed for extinction--locked in endless government peace talks, riven by infighting and shorn of its ideology after the end of the Cold War--a recent spate of attacks has many here now asking: Is the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and its armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), making a comeback?
The government, led by President Joseph Estrada, says it isn't worried, although officials concede even a small band of guerrillas can cause serious damage to the country's hard-earned reputation for political stability over the last decade.
"The CPP-NPA remains a threat to national security since its ultimate agenda is to gain political power through violence," Estrada said in an interview during a visit to a town just a few miles from where guerrillas struck the Korean construction site. Estrada estimated the NPA's current strength at 9,500 armed fighters--"well within the capability of our military and police forces to control," he said.
The NPA was founded in 1969 and espoused sweeping social and economic changes for the Philippines as well as an end to what it saw as foreign--particularly American--domination. It carried out a campaign of urban attacks in the late 1980s against police and government officials and U.S. military personnel. At its peak, the group numbered about 25,000.
While riding in his presidential helicopter over Quezon province, on a trip to hand out new land titles to farmers under the government's ongoing agrarian reform program, Estrada assumed the tough-guy role he perfected during his years as a macho movie icon. "For the so-called hard-core Communists, there is no future," he declared. "I will finish them before my term ends."
The new hard line against the Communists began this year, when Estrada canceled long-running peace talks in response to a rebel raid in which two senior police commanders were kidnapped. Likewise, the rebels canceled talks with the government, angry, they said, over a new agreement between the United States and the Philippines allowing for the resumption of joint military exercises.
From his exile base in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, the Philippine Communist Party's founder and longtime leader, Jose Maria Sison, announced an "intensified armed struggle by the revolutionary forces." And what followed was a Filipino-style war of words.
"A wimp!" Sison called Estrada. "A pushover." "A midget," he added, comparing Estrada to the Philippines' late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
For Estrada, those were fighting words. "If he is man enough, he should come home to see that many of his comrades are suffering," Estrada said.
Behind the bravado, however, lurks a strategy. While calling off peace talks with the rebels on the national level, Estrada's government is following a classic divide-and-rule tactic, trying to forge separate pacts with local communist organizations and exploit divisions within the movement.
"The present policy thrust of my administration is to directly address the causes of the insurgency through the localization of peace efforts," Estrada said, in a written answer to questions from The Washington Post.
At the same time, Estrada is hoping his government can undercut the rural appeal of the Communists by addressing the issues that have fueled the insurgency for decades--crushing rural poverty, which persists despite the country having largely avoided the financial meltdown of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and a feudal system of ownership that has traditionally allowed a small, wealthy elite to control most of the country's productive land.
"Those are the two remaining issues that they have--poverty and land," said Horacio "Boy" Morales, the agrarian reform secretary. "But we are now almost 65 percent through land redistribution."
Morales is in many ways indicative of how the leftist movement has lost its ideological compass and become deeply divided by the Philippines' emergence from the Marcos-era dictatorship to one of Asia's strongest democracies. Morales was a top government official under Marcos before he quit and went underground at the age of 33, joining the communist rebels in the hills. He was arrested in 1982, charged with rebellion, and jailed.
When Corazon Aquino ousted Marcos in the 1986 "People Power" revolution, Morales decided to stay above ground and work for change within the system. He met Estrada a decade ago, when both were protesting against the presence of two large American military bases on Philippine soil.
Because of his background with the left, Morales sees himself as a link. "I can talk to them," he said. "But of course, we have different views now. They have to realize that changes are happening very quickly in the Philippines--social, economic and political changes. I hope they can adjust to those changes in pursuing their very noble objectives."
Some from the political left, who were initially attracted to Estrada's plans to help the poor when he ran for president last year, have become disillusioned, accusing him of rewarding political friends through cronyism reminiscent of the Marcos years.
Stung by the criticisms, Estrada has announced plans for a "confidence-building" exercise to regain public favor and this week asked for the "courtesy resignations" of all his cabinet members and advisers to give him a free hand in naming a new team.
But even Estrada concedes that reducing poverty, the main strategy for defeating the communist insurgency after land reform, has been less successful than he had hoped.
Yet few believe that Filipinos are susceptible to the appeal of the Communists, and the current spate of attacks could be more for attention, or to bring the government back to the bargaining table.