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Military Warms to Aquino but Peace Talks May Chill

October 12, 1986|Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman is The Times' correspondent in Manila.

MANILA — For five years, Rudolfo Salas had a $12,500 price on his head.

As the shadowy commander-in-chief of the communist New People's Army, Salas headed the Philippines' underground revolutionary movement for nearly a decade. Under his leadership it grew from a ragtag band of a few hundred ill-equipped idealists to a nationwide army of 22,000 committed regulars. Now the government regards it as the most serious threat to national stability.

At 8:45 p.m. on Sept. 29, Salas, 39, known as Commander Bilog, seemed hardly worth even $12,500. He was leaving a Manila hospital after minor surgery for an inflamed goiter, and was dressed as a peasant, sitting beside his wife in the back of a rented Toyota Corolla.

But when a team of military intelligence officers waiting outside the hospital arrested Salas on charges that carry the death penalty, they bagged a trophy that government leaders, civilian and military, say was priceless.

Rather than deepening the divisions between President Corazon Aquino's civilian Cabinet and her increasingly frustrated military, as the Communists predicted it would, the arrest of Salas, a key member of the Communist Party Central Committee and head of its National Military Commission, gave Aquino a golden opportunity at a critical moment to forge closer ties with military men she now calls "my soldiers."

It gave her a chance to show the Reagan Administration and congressional and military leaders in Washington that she is prepared to stand by the hard-line position that she took against the Communist rebellion during her U.S. visit last month. Indeed, the U.S. Senate responded a few days later by approving $200 million in new bilateral aid to the Philippines next year, and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) made it a point to applaud Aquino's stance on the Salas issue.

And rather than sabotaging the government's delicate cease-fire talks with the rebels, as the rebels also predicted it would, Salas' arrest appears to have given Aquino the upper hand in the talks. It has distracted the Communist negotiators from their demands for a military withdrawal from areas where the Communists exert strong influence and forced them to focus on a new priority, securing Salas' release.

In rejecting a call by the Communists' political arm, the National Democratic Front, to overrule the military and release Salas immediately, Aquino also won the support of many once-suspicious middle-level military officers. And she confronted the Communist negotiating team with a more unified government than they had thought possible.

From the moment that the military placed Salas in a maximum-security cell, Aquino has stood by his arrest, putting to rest fears among the military and the nation's political right wing that she stood too far to the left for the military. Aquino's stance identifies her more firmly with the right, however, raising the prospect of a military counteroffensive against the rebels. It further polarizes the argument about how to pursue the civil war, and it leaves in grave doubt the long-term hopes for peace.

The response from the political left to Aquino's decision to keep Salas in custody was predictable. The left charges that the arrest proves the government has been negotiating in bad faith.

Moreover, the newly formed leftist political party, the Peoples Party, declared that the arrest was a blow to the chances of a cease-fire and a political settlement.

The military establishment responded with an equally bleak forecast about the possibility of a political settlement.

"Don't expect a peaceful solution to this problem," Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile ad-libbed in a Rotary Club speech on Monday. "I have grave doubts about that possibility."

Enrile, who has been a constant critic of Aquino's peace overtures to the rebels, said Tuesday that her decision to abrogate the 1973 Marcos constitution had led many Filipinos to conclude she had forfeited her electoral mandate. Enrile, who is believed to harbor presidential ambitions, also said last week that failure to heed advice brought down the Marcos government and that the same fate could befall Aquino.

The peace talks have been suspended since Salas' arrest but there is some hope that they will be resumed when the dust settles.

Aquino said in a statement congratulating the military on their efficiency, "In the meantime, the government keeps the door open for a cease-fire."

The National Democratic Front responded in kind, saying it is willing to continue the negotiating sessions but emphasizing that Salas' release will be essential to any permanent settlement.

Bolstering that position, Bernabe Buscayno, the alleged founder of the New People's Army, whom Aquino personally ordered freed from prison two days after she took power, praised the president in a speech as a "sincere" leader who is seeking "a genuine peace."

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