PEACE TALKS IN THE PHILIPPINES

As the the Philippines election approached in February, corridors in Washington buzzed with intelligence reports of the progress being made by the New People's Army guerrillas.

If President Ferdinand Marcos didn't mend his ways, clean up the corruption in the armed forces and stamp out military abuses and cronyism, the islands could slide into communist hands within three years, the more alarmist assessments went. Six months later, the guerrilla war that spanned the last 17 of President Marcos's 20 years in office remains a running sore that could still turn infectious. President Corazon Aquino, who ousted Mr. Marcos three weeks after the elections in a civilian-backed military revolt, inherited a war that has already claimed more than 3,000 lives this year.To try to stop the slide, Mrs. Aquino launched talks with NPA guerrilla envoys for a cease-fire she hopes will eventually lead to a lasting peace. But as the two sides began skirmishing warily at the negotiating table, rebel ambushes and military offensives continued in the field. In the last week of August alone 111 soldiers, civilians and rebels died.

Although Washington's alarmists will be proved wrong, recent events in the Pacific show how important stability in the Philippines is to the West's interests, Western diplomats said. Earlier this month, the United States withdrew its security shield from New Zealand, confirming that the ANZUS pact between Australia, New Zealand and the United States is badly damaged, if not actually in tatters. New Zealand's Prime Minister, David Lange, had refused U.S. ships port facilities because Washington would neither confirm nor deny whether its visiting warships were nuclear armed.

The squabbling within ANZUS comes at a time when Moscow is actively wooing the Pacific island states. Its biggest catch, a fishing agreement with Kiribati that could lead to rights to use port facilities, is up for renewal any day. The latest overtures are directed to the Philippines. On Aug. 27, Anatoly Zaitsev, Soviet ambassador in the Philippines, repeated a theme that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev raised in his July 28 speech in Vladivostok. "If the United States will reduce its presence in the Philippines, that move will not be unanswered," Mr. Zaitsev told reporters in Manila. Western observers interpreted this to mean Moscow could trade a reduction of its strike force based at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang in Vietnam for a reduction of the United States presence at Clark and Subic in the Philippines.

Mrs. Aquino has said she'll honor the bases agreement until 1991, when it expires, and keep her options open beyond then. However, nationalist calls for the removal of the bases are growing and the cry is sure to be taken up by the new left wing "People's Party, which was formed this weekend. Faced with these developments, the last thing the region needs is for the NPA guerrillas in the Philippines to resume the progress they were making under President Marcos.

Mrs. Aquino passionately wants the killing of Filipinos by Filipinos to stop. Having seen the removal of Mr. Marcos with the loss of mercifully few lives, which she considers was a miracle, she believes a spirit of reconciliation can lead to peace.

However, there's been almost no progress. Long nurtured mutual distrust between the armed forces and the rebels has hindered even discussion of how the talks should proceed. And it is not clear whether the government knows how to achieve the cease-fire, which is Mrs. Aquino's top priority.

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