America is deeply worried about the keystone of its Pacific defensive arch: the Philippines, after 20 years under Ferdinand Marcos, has a ruined economy and burgeoning communist insurgency. Only Marcos's departure will save the country, the US believes, along with many Filipinos; and Marcos has called an election a year early, in January. But will he go?
December 1, 1985
Report by Simon Winchester
Manila : the curlers come out when the fleet comes in.
"Marcos out!' is the slogan of protesters (in a Manila rainstorm, above) and of the Pepsi-generation NPA guerrillas of tomorrow (right) who, despite make-believe weapons, vow to remove the detested first family, and the Americans.
The government expects the marines (left) to handle the problem, and is complacent.
Although bluebloods like the security-firm chief Nicanor Jacinto III still manage polo in the suburbs (right) for most Filipinos life is more basic. A thousand families live In shacks - though with a good sea view- on the main Manila rubbish tip (above).
Juvilyn Jaravelo (above, in snapshot frame) was 20 when she was shot down by part-time soldiers in the "Escalante massacre" on Negros Island. Her mourning parents - her father is a jobless sugar worker- insist she was no communist, but waited to join the police.
Colonel Kahuligan of the Davao police (with a communist suspect, right) has a neat solution to his country's problem "Kill them all - the commies, lawyers, nuns-everyone”
About a year ago the Regent Hotel, one of Manila's finest, burned to the ground. Nobody knows why, although the forensic experts have said they think firebombs were placed there by members of he New People's Army, the small but deadly communist insurgent group that is currently causing mayhem throughout the Philippine Republic. The owners of the hotel--the same chain that owns the Dorchester in London--promptly called in investigators. One of them was a skilled San Francisco lawyer named John Cooper, who arrived while the fire was still burning. "I've never known anything like this case," he said, hot and exasperated one recent afternoon over a bottle of San Miguel in a nearby bar. "The corruption, the double-dealing, the lies--in every single aspect of my life and work in the Philippines over the past year it's been the same. The first day I got here, when the fire at the hotel was still going, I watched the firemen rushing into the building--not to put out the fire, but to loot the guest rooms.
"And what happened? When they ran out with their pickings, they were stopped by policemen with guns. But the cops didn't arrest them, they just stole the things from the firemen, and ran off themselves! The case has been like that ever since. Everyone's on the take. Nobody tells the truth. I tell you"--and here his voice rose above the quiet buzz of conversation in the bar--"the Yanks are to blame for ruining this place. This was a great little country once--but we Americans have used it, used it as our whore. We've created a whore for ourselves out here in Asia; and we act surprised when it goes bad on us. It's all our fault."
A shocked silence fell briefly on the assembled drinkers that particular evening, and I confess to having thought at the time that it might have been the San Miguel talking, rather than Mr. Cooper. But a few days later I happened to be in Olongapo, 60 miles north of Manila, a town of a quarter of a million which claims to be "proud to serve" the giant US naval base at Subic Bay; and I saw exactly what, he meant.
The coldest beer and the hottest girls on earth! shrieked a notice in scarlet neon high above the Strip, Magsaysay Drive's gaudy mile of pleasure palaces. Under acres of bunting and beside freshly-painted massage parlours and thundering discotheques and steaming bath-houses, hundreds upon hundreds of the most pliant and willing whores on the planet--scores of them specially trucked in from outlying specks of this 7107-island archipelago--were waiting for one of the biggest days of their year. After months of frustrated and impoverished waiting, the fleet was coming in.
At dawn on this particular Tuesday, the lead vessels of the US Navy Seventh Fleet's West Pacific Battle Group crossed the bar and entered the bay. By noon, 30 warships--rust-streaked, sea-weary, their tired engines belching black smoke--were tied up along the miles of quays. They had been shepherded in by the venerable carrier Midway, flying the Admiral's signal pennant. Behind her were destroyers and cruisers, oilers and nuclear submarines, frigates and salvage tugs--all the elements of the mightiest naval force in any ocean, anywhere.
One by one their engines were shut down. Shore leave was announced. By mid-afternoon the moment for which the hundreds of "nice, clean, Christian young ladies" had been waiting was at last upon them: the dockyard gates opened, and the first shift of 15,000 sailors who hadn't been on land or downed a beer or glimpsed a female thigh for four and a half months was streaming into town. Like locusts, said someone, they were about to lay everything bare.
"The money I make these next few days!" exclaimed Raquel Marquez excitedly, as she reddened and glossed her lips in one of the dozen wing mirrors on the chrome-covered jeepney beside which she planned to wait. Raquel, a pert and ever-cheerful 20-year-old from the island of Negros, had been working as a Subic Bay "masseuse" on Magsaysay Drive for the past nine months, ever since her father lost his job as a cane-cutter on a sugar estate. "The first day the fleet's in the boys are very eager, very quick. I can see 10, maybe 15, in an evening- that's 2000 pesos (about £90), and I send all of it home. I've told my folks I'm a dancer, but I guess they know what I really do. Everyone knows what Olongapo's famous for."
The warships were to be in for only three days. Once refuelled and resupplied, and with the sailors all made content by the myriad girls (and, in a few cases, boys) of Olongapo, the battle group would resume its duties, ceaselessly and secretly sweeping hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, keeping all secure for the oil and grain and ore that churns along the shipping lanes.
The Philippines' "rest and recreation" facilities are as crucial to the operational success of the Seventh Fleet as is the oil from the Subic Bay bunkers, the spares from the Subic Bay stores, or the hamburgers from the Subic Bay butchery.
Every nice girl loves a sailor. Raquel Marquez, a masseuse, can love 15 a night.
A group wait patiently for shore leave aboard USS Brunswick one of 30 warship docked in America's most vital foreign base. Subic, Filipinos boast, fulfils all the needs of the Seventh Fleet.
Several hundred girls happily service the US navy men, each one secretly hoping that a Rambo look-alike will one day take her off to meet Mom in faraway Ohio.
Entertainment for the Sailors and airmen tends towards the basic (left).
But for the middle class Filipino dozens of so-called "fashion shows" provide lunchtime diversions that don't have to be the subject of confession next Sunday. Locals say they resent the foreigners’ "exploitation" of their women.
But now, to the mounting alarm of the Pentagon, Filipinos have begun to question the way the American fleet--and America in general--has come to take the little republic for granted.
There has long been middle-class distaste for the brothels of Olongapo, and for those in its sister city, Angeles, which "serves" the Americans at the equally vital Clark Air-Base, 50 miles away. Lately, however, they have become the object of real political disquiet.
Since the murder of the opposition senator Benigno Aquino at Manila airport two years ago, the Philippines has become an acutely radicalised country. The Americans, corporately if not individually, have become the target of a sustained campaign of vilification. End the US-Marcos Dictatorship! is the slogan of the moment. Close down the bases! read the posters.
And the new young radicals, soul brothers of the diehards who burned down the Regent Hotel and are fighting an increasingly bitter little war on the islands, find in towns like Olongapo a repellent symbol of American dominion over their country.
"They just use our country and use our people," said Luis, a young photographer who, in bandanna and battledress and with a pirate copy of a Guevara manual in his pocket, was making a pictorial chronicle of American excess. "What do we Filipinos provide for the Americans? There is a Filipino butler in the White House. There are a million Filipina maids and waitresses and hostesses over there. And the girls here are just to provide fun for the sailors.
"What happened to our dignity? Why are we putting up with this? That's the best thing about the NPA, and the Communist Party--it wants to put an end to the Yanks walking all over us, give us back a bit of self-respect. And that's the reason the NPA are doing so well--people in my country are all fed up with what the Americans have done to us. We're fighting back at last. I feel proud at last."
According to the received wisdom about today's Philippines, the brave guerrillas of the NPA are fighting a noble war, and winning. The brutal and decadent dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos is toppling. A sort of predestinated déjà vu has gripped the country. In some circles, the Philippines has already been written off as inextricably caught in the same whirlpool of political inevitability that has sucked down Nicaragua and Cuba and Vietnam and Cambodia and taken them from the decadence of Mammon to the orthodoxies of Marx.
And there are, each day, events that seem to prove the rightness of that assumption. Two days before the fleet swept in to Subic ,and before young Raquel had begun her 72 hours of profitable rapture, I went to a sad little ceremony for another 20-year-old girl who, in a rather less well-known corner of the republic, was being buried in a village cemetery.
She was called Juvilyn Jaravelo and she, like Raquel, was the daughter of an unemployed sugar worker. Juvilyn was shot dead by a part-time government soldier using an American M-16 rifle, and had committed no obvious crime during her brief life save for one small act of defiance a week before, during an anti-Marcos march by workless villagers.
"There were soldiers everywhere," sobbed her father, a small, dignified man in a Pepsi-Cola T-shirt. "She was near the front of the marchers. The soldiers fired three teargas bombs, even though there was no trouble. And my daughter picked one up, and threw it back at them.
"She was no communist. She was going to join the police, up in Manila. That day she was just angry. She threw the gas back, and they shot her. They shot her and 29 other people, too. There were dead boys and girls all over the road. And they left them there. My daughter was left dead in the sun, like a dog, for all the rest of the day. They wouldn't even give us her body back. It was terrible. They were such bad men - so bad and cruel."
The marchers at the funeral, a wretched little affair held in a banana grove outside the village, the priest's quiet intonations almost drowned by the angry roar of a buffalo harnessed to pull a truck out of a ditch, were bitter. "Our tears today are tears of sorrow," shouted one of Juvilyn's college friends, a bespectacled girl who had been chosen to declaim a floridly Latin eulogy. "But our tears tomorrow will be tears of anger!" And the crowd took up the chant: "End the dictatorship! US out! Marcos Out! Viva the NPA!"
From such small tragedies, commented the local Catholic priest after the service, do revolutions grow .
Filipina girls, it is said, make wonderful brides. Foreign marriage bureaux -this one is German- operate from hotel suites all over Manila, processing (and measuring) unending streams of young women who want a husband, any husband, in the outside world.
The inhabitants of the 7107 islands of the Philippine Republic make up a strange geographical and historical anomaly. They are decidedly Far Eastern in location but, unlike all their neighhours--Indonesia, say, or Borneo--they are manifestly western in every aspect of their culture, behaviour and ambition.
The colonisation of these ethnically Malay people, first by the Spaniards, who brought them passion, the paseo, the Pope, the paso doble and an unquenchable sense of machismo, and then by the Americans, who brought their chewing-gum culture--"four centuries in the convent and then 50 in Hollywood" as one writer put it--has made for a people unlike any other on the face of the earth. They are volatile and quick-tempered. They squabble. They adore the vulgar and the slick, they love chrome, the quick buck, speed, noise and having fun. They are physically beautiful. They are generous, eternally kind. They are lazy and inefficient. Theirs is a mañana republic--a place and a people, in short, at the same time beguiling, infuriating, and quite wonderful.
But they bury their own culture beneath a pastiche of western fads and fashions. Even their so-called "national" language, Tagalog, is spoken only in brief bursts, sandwiched between paragraphs of American English and sentences of bastard Spanish. They can be a moody, occasionally gloomy people--a people gripped by an overwhelming sense of servility; and when they ruminate on that aspect of their national character, as many of them are doing now that they have a crisis on their hands, they loathe themselves for it.
"Why do you find Filipinos all over the world--but all working as domestics?" wailed Nicanor Jacinto Ill, an aristocratic Manila polo-player who, in normal circumstances, would vigorously have denied the very notion of his people being called servile. "But it's true. We go everywhere to work as butlers and maids and footmen. We are a below-stairs people. We have no sense of pride in ourselves as Filipinos. We are here to be used by other people, other countries. I guess it's the price we have paid for all those years of colonisation."
It is this obedience to authority, this compliance, that has allowed Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, despite their excesses and their incompetence, to remain secure in Manila's gaudy Malacanang Palace for the past 20 years. Sycophancy rules. I arrived in Manila on the President's birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIR ! said huge signs hung on every corner. "And he shall reign for ever and ever," sang the choir, lustily. Their choirmaster had chosen the Messiah for reasons other, one imagines, than the wholly spiritual.
And when, a week later, opposition demonstrators poured out on to the streets to demand the removal of president and first lady (as they have done as an autumn ritual almost every year for the past 10) and marched with much swagger and braggadocio up to the lines of riot police, they cravenly agreed with the commanders to just an hour or so of ritualised protest--a few posters burned, a few slogans shouted--and then, without a murmur, trooped home.
Out in the countryside, though, the political situation is much less stable particularly in those islands like Negros and Samar and Mindanao where the communist insurgency is currently powerful. During the week of the docile anti-Marcos demonstrations in Manila, there were marches and strikes, and killings, almost all over the republic. Newspapers counted more than 60 dead.
On the great southern island of Mindanao, lawlessness has become institutionalised, violent death a commonplace. In Davao City, the sprawling and unlovely capital, one local radio station has made it a point of bizarre pride to find the newly dead bodies while they are still warm. The station's boss takes great pleasure in showing his hundreds of pictures of recent deaths (there are an average of six a day in his listening area).
Dozens of his pictures show decapitated victims. These, he explained, were usually people killed by the police; those whose bands were tied by wire and whose heads were blown open were victims of the soldiers; those simply shot in the back had died at the bands of the NPA.
A new language is being spoken in places like Davao. People killed by the police are spoken of as having been "salvaged". The units of the NPA who make forays to kill are called "sparrows". And the police indulge, these days, in "zoning" operations: a hooded informer is taken back to his village, sits on a chair in front of his neighbours and is told, on pain of torture and death, to point out those whom he knows or suspects are members of the NPA. They are then taken away and are either charged and tried, or (invariably, the Marcos opponents say) "salvaged" on the spot.
It is difficult to know where the truth lies in any of these cases. Propagandists are on every corner, keen to take the gullible newcomer to see "evidence" of the awfulness of one side or the other. The local missionaries (Irish Catholics who tend to have sympathy for the guerrillas, and American Baptists whose creed and background are unshakably anticommunist) are deeply unreliable: I had more untruths passed on to me in the Philippines by men of the cloth than any other group in the country.
Only once did I feel I was seeing a faithful picture of the conflict, and that was when I spent some hours with a communist guerrilla, a young girl who was brought into a marine camp in the jungle 20 miles outside Davao. She was a pretty 18-year-old--though she looked 15--named Renalita Manco. She had been caught, she said, in a brief fight in a bamboo forest nearby. In her rucksack were a spare pair of jeans, a change of underwear, a notebook with a picture of Michael Jackson on the cover, an American-made hand-grenade and a cheap chrome-plated revolver.
Her notebook contained songs, in Tagalog, which she explained were about the coming revolution, the overthrow of Marcos. But she had no idea who Karl Marx was, nor did she know of Mao. She knew a little of London--it was, she said, where Duran Duran came from.
The marine colonel was kind to her, though irritated that so young a girl could be "gulled" into joining the NPA. "She was bored, that's all. She had no motive. You can see that, surely?" And from my hours of conversation with her it seemed that he was right. She had no idea of why she was fighting, what would happen if her side "won", what a revolution was all about. "My life in the village had no future," she explained. "My friends in the NPA have been very good to me. It is exciting. I can be proud--prouder than the girls who hang round the bars."
The marine handed Renalita over--with some regret--to the local police, to a colonel with the curiously Irish-sounding name of Kahuligan, who said he had done his training with the South Carolina highway patrol. He, too, was friendly at first as he questioned the girl, took her fingerprints, charged her; and he seemed sympathetic when she wept after being told she would almost certainly go to prison for 20 years for her membership of the NPA, and for having a grenade and a gun wrapped up in her knickers.
But then a lawyer arrived, sent by the Catholic nun who runs the local Detainees' Task Force, and Kahuligan's manner changed. His face contorted with rage, and he shouted at me: "These lousy radical lawyers! These damned nuns! You know what I would do? I would kill every last one of them. Every NPA. Every lawyer. Every nun. Then we'd have some peace and quiet round here." He was, I thought, a frightening man. I have wondered often since whether Renalita Manco is still alive, or whether her body, head dumped in some foetid river, is all that remains to memorialise her brief existence.
Although young Renalita herself could probably not sustain an argument in favour of the NPA--nor of the Communist party of the Philippines, its political wing--some reasons for the sudden growth of radical politics in the country are evident. Colonel Kahuligan's outburst was one, the shooting of Juvilyn was another: the military and the police can be and have been extraordinarily violent and cruel. And then there is, as John Cooper pointed out, widespread corruption. President Marcos and his cronies--notably the great barons who control sugar, flour, coconuts, beer and bananas, who have their own private armies to guard their estates, and win government contracts and favours without any attempt at concealment or discretion--have run the country in an execrable manner.
The economy, once envied across Asia, has taken a nosedive. "Other Asian leaders have made their poor countries rich," a businessman told the Wall Street Journal. "Marcos has done the reverse. He's made a rich nation poor." It is the only economy in Asia that has obviously been bypassed by the Pacific boom. It is the only non-communist country in Asia that has had to reschedule its international debt. It is the only country in the region to have regressed in 10 years from democracy to its present one-man rule, from rule by the people to rule by crony and by flat from the palace.
And yet, while there are beguiling reasons for an imminent revolution, some of the textbook causes of the growth of militant radicalism are clearly, and oddly, absent.
There is very little real poverty, for instance. Certainly there is more than there should be, in so wealthy a nation. The gap between rich and poor is more noticeable in the Philippines than in most places. There is one particularly awful slum in North Manila, a thousand people living on a giant and smoking rubbish tip, and it is well within sight of the glittering hotels where the débutantes dance and Dom Perignon is for sale in the bars. The lamentable economic performance is driving up the number of beggars, child prostitutes, criminals, too.
And hunger is on the increase - though the stories of gross malnutrition, of "the Ethiopia of the East", have, a little investigation shows, been embroidered by the propagandists. But real and intense poverty is rare indeed: I ventured into a tiny cottage one night in a very ordinary village three hours north of Manila, and found the family watching Madonna on their Sony colour television. The father was said to be "scratching a living", and life was not as good in 1985, he said, as it had been three years before. But he "got by": more fish than meat, he said; more bananas than fish; more rice than bananas.
And again, there is a remarkable degree of freedom. There is, more or less, a free press. There is no martial law, no curfew. You can travel where you like, meet whom you wish, stand up and protest, agitate, demand, cajole--within limits that are certainly no stricter, on paper, than elsewhere in Asia. You fear no secret police, no tapped phone, no concentration camp. If you fight against the regime, they fight back; and there are excesses, and awful tragedies. But the Philippines is no South Korea, no Uruguay.
To use the word "fascist" in the context of the Marcos government, as many do, was "quite inappropriate", said a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. The government is "undoubtedly corrupt, it is demonstrably incompetent, its continuance in office is leading to the growth of instability. The strength of the insurgency in the months and years ahead depends on whether Marcos agrees to step down."
The insurgency, he said, is "a temporary reaction to a temporary situation": there is no inherent, institutional reason why the Filipinos, of all people, should turn communist. (The professor paused: "Of course, they might have been having conversations like this 20 years ago in the bar of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. We could all be proved terribly wrong.")
There is an additional difficulty for the communists--a major difference between this insurgency and all others in recent history. The Philippines is an archipelago, with more than 7000 islands. Fighting a coordinated guerrilla war on an archipelago--let alone winning one is a challenge without precedent. There is no neighbour-state to supply weapons and ideology and morale-boosting.
"We are up against it," admined a Communist party member in Manila. "This is not a textbook revolution. The geography makes sure of that. We may win Mindanao. We may win in Negros. But to win the country--very difficult!"
So--if Marcos is the central problem, will Marcos go? Is there a replacement waiting?
After two decades of absolute power, so the political axioms go, hubris begins to take hold. It is no different in the Philippines. To upstage the 12 opposition parties Marcos has called a snap presidential election for January 17, 16 months ahead of schedule. Marcos is in no doubt what the election will be about: "The issue," he says, "is Marcos."
Despite the troubles, the pressure on him, and his illness (he has the wasting disease lupus), he is confident he will win, and proudly shows opinion polls that indicate he is ahead of his rivals. The mainline opposition is fragmented--even his enemies admit that the only candidate of any note, Benigno Aquino's widow Corazon, is too inexperienced, too prone to influence from the same cronies who influence Marcos, to be of much long-term use.
But there has been one sea-change. The Americans, long his most faithful sponsors, now think Marcos should step down. American diplomats say, privately, that he is in some senses a bigger danger than the 16,000 in the communist army. They are sorry--they like him personally; but now, they say, he must go. Last October President Reagan sent Senator Paul Laxalt to Manila to issue the formal warning: it was time for Marcos either to change his ways, or to cash in his chips. Hence the snap election, which still leaves the rather large question of whether it will be free and fair (or even constitutional--the early date is being challenged in the courts).
As the Americans have fallen out with Marcos so, to a man, have the entire--and entirely apolitical--Filipino aristocracy, who have watched silently but with mounting alarm as their country has lurched towards apparent ruin.
"I have always been respectful of my president," said one such man, a figure of extraordinary wealth and dignity, a diplomat universally respected throughout the country. "But now he must go. He must take his wife, and his money, and go off to settle in Hawaii, and leave us to rebuild this country.
"If he persists in staying on, there will be a coup d'etat. The colonels will take over. There will be martial law, curfews, tough new laws. We don't want that. We want an orderly handover--and it will have to be Cory Aquino for the next two or three years, a decent breathing space. We must rally behind her, and get Marcos out. He's outlived his usefulness. He must go."
The message is the same today from all quarters. The communists want Marcos to go. The Philippines establishment want him to go. The Americans want him to go. It remains to be decided on January 17 if the people want him to go. If they do--and he is said to have been salting away funds in Hawaii against the day when he has to leave--then there would be some real hope for the Philippines. The future of the country is very much in the people's hands.