MANILA — When New People's Army leader Bernabe Buscayno, popularly known as Commander Dante, was arrested by the Philippine army in 1976, tHen-President Ferdinand E. Marcos described it as a great victory over communism.
Marcos drove to San Fernando in southern Luzon province to interrogate Buscayno personally and pose with him for front-page photographs.
The Marcos government said that Buscayno was personally responsible for killing 30 people, including nine soldiers. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said it had taken 14 years and "an aggregate of 15,000 troops" to catch the elusive rebel.
Friday night, the notorious rebel leader, along with other former Communist insurgents recently released from jail by new Philippine President Corazon Aquino, was the special guest at a genteel garden party in a fashionable section of Manila.
A mango tree was decorated with Christmas-style lights. Tables were heaped with canapes and lasagna. White-coated waiters attended guests as journalists and autograph seekers bunched around the former inmates.
After years of hard-line policy against leftists under Marcos, it is becoming acceptable, if not chic, to be radical in the Philippines.
Overriding objections from her military advisers, including Enrile, Aquino freed the men whom Marcos had portrayed as the most dangerous in the Philippines and then posed for photographs with two of them, Buscayno and Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison. This signaled other members of her government that it was all right to be seen with leftists.
Several senior Aquino officials attended the garden party, hosted by a retired dean at the University of the Philippines. "Other countries have Communist parties," said First Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Ingles, one of the guests. "These men were put in without trial. They have been convicted of nothing."
For some of the former prisoners, the sudden acceptance and celebrity has been difficult to handle. Buscayno, who served more than nine years in prison, said: "I'm a little bit confused. I used to live in a lonely cell without any contact from outside except for visits from my children and my wife. Now there is all this confusion. I feel like I'm floating."
When he was arrested in 1976, Buscayno was captured in bed, where he was sleeping with his wife and two-week-old baby daughter. Now the daughter is nearly 10. She stood at his side Friday and held his hand to help him face the assault of journalists and well-wishers.
He said that he is undecided what he will do now but that he has had several offers to write a book about his experiences.
Victor Corpuz, meanwhile, is considering rejoining the army. Corpuz, a former officer and professor at the Philippine Military Academy, made headlines in 1971 when he defected to the New People's Army and led a raid on the academy. He was quickly arrested and jailed by the Marcos government.
"I'm evaluating various offers; various feelers are out for me to go back," said Corpuz, who was wearing a Boston Bruins T-shirt and enjoying the adulation of young college students at the party. Another option, he said, might be for him to act as a go-between for the Aquino government and the New People's Army.
Makes Liaison Offer
"I would be willing to act as a liaison for the dialogue with the NPA," he said. "I feel this is an ideal time for entering into a dialogue."
Aquino may find this suggestion particularly attractive since she has already promised amnesty for those rebels who put down their weapons.
At the very least, the willingness of Corpuz to work with the government is a positive sign for her administration and evidence that the controversial prisoner release may work to her benefit.
Several of the political prisoners appeared to have been mellowed by their long jail time and the gesture of good will by the new president.
"I intend to stay legal," Sison said with a smile. He described the Aquino government as a "democratization of the situation."
In 1970, when he was 31, Sison was fired from his job as an instructor at the University of the Philippines because, the Marcos government charged, "he imparted leftist ideas to his students."
On Friday, Sison said three departments at the university "are fighting over me--ENglish, Political Science and Philosophy. I probably will be going back to the university."
Even more attractive, he said, is the idea of a lecture tour in the United States. He said the idea was suggested by his brother, a pathologist working in Los Angeles.
"If the United States would allow it, I would like to go there," Sison said.