MANILA — The sound of machine-gun fire from a rifle range behind the Ministry of National Defense provides a daily reminder of the existence of a military force that has become the focal point of the Philippine political crisis.
At practice are men of the National Defense Security Group, a small, elite corps that threatens the unity of the armed forces and the stability of President Corazon Aquino's government.
The unit, which has been practicing from dawn to dusk every day this week, filling the air with a staccato sound track, consists of 700 of the best-trained, best-equipped and most disciplined and ruthless soldiers in the Philippine armed forces.
Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, the man these troops have committed their lives to protect, calls them "my boys." He often reminds the Philippine people that it was this group that started the military uprising last February that ousted President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Aquino has been told that members of the security group are plotting against her, and on Sunday she denounced its leaders as "self-appointed messiahs" and "misguided elements" who are threatening to tear the armed forces apart.
Other critics have been even harsher, describing the group as "a trigger-happy cabal" that uses psychological warfare as well as weapons in its effort to influence the policies of a government it is paid to protect.
At the moment, while Aquino is on a state visit to Japan, the security group is at the center of a storm of rumors that have pushed the Philippines to new levels of fear and tension--fear of a coup, fear of a military crackdown on dissidents and leftists, fear that when Aquino returns Thursday, some of her most trusted aides may be in jail.
For the record, Defense Minister Enrile and the security group's commanders have denied that they are involved in any plot against the government. Privately, however, they have confirmed that they are.
They have made it clear that the rumors are part of an overall strategy to protect the government against Communist infiltration and to protect Enrile's personal and political future.
Also involved in this strategy, they have said, is an effort to "surgically remove" several members of Aquino's Cabinet that they regard as threats to Enrile and to the country, as well.
Some Officials Leave
Some of the most controversial of these Cabinet ministers, men who have been criticized by Enrile and his security group as leftists or incompetents, left the country last week amid rumors that the military was planning a crackdown aimed at forcing Aquino to reorganize the Cabinet.
Luis Villafuerte, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Government Reorganization, has stayed on in Manila despite being branded as a Communist in a leaflet distributed recently. Nonetheless, he said Monday that he is convinced that the security group is planning to move against the government this week.
"There is no doubt that there is a group advocating such a move," Villafuerte said in an interview. "But they want to disguise it as some sort of emergency. . . . They do not want to harm Cory (Aquino). They would hold her hostage."
Quoting from intelligence gathered by presidential security forces, Villafuerte said: "First, they will try to arrest as many leftists and Communist elements as they can. That would lead to a fight . . . between the military and the Communists . . . and eventually give the military the moral authority to declare a state of emergency and take over the government to save it from the Communists for Cory."
'God Save the Queen'
The military has code-named the alleged plot "God Save the Queen," and Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the military chief of staff, reportedly leaked it to the press last week. But not until Aquino left Monday for Tokyo did many known leftist leaders begin bracing for a crackdown.
There have been signs from leftist leaders that the strategy ascribed to Enrile could work.
The largest leftist party, the 2-million-member People's Party, has vowed to take to the streets in a "massive protest action" if the military does crack down.
More important, top two commanders of the Communist military wing, the New People's Army, said they would mobilize their 23,200 armed guerrillas to oppose the 200,000 troops of the armed forces if there is an attempt to take power.
'We Will Be There'
"Whether they (Aquino's government) want an alliance or not, we will be there," said a New People's Army commander who identified himself as "Kumander Ben."
Such statements appear to play directly into the hands of Enrile's security group, whose leaders have said that their primary goal is to crush communism, to put down the insurgency that has continued for 17 years.
Not long ago, one of the security group's chief political planners said privately that the group's strategy is aimed at polarizing the forces behind Aquino to make it appear that the Communist Party has "kidnaped" her government.