BALIUAG, Philippines — Former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said Saturday that the image of the Philippines and its armed forces is worse now than it was under deposed ruler Ferdinand E. Marcos, following last Thursday's police action that left at least 15 peasant protesters dead.
"We have lost everything we gained in February last year," Enrile said, referring to the civilian and military rebellion he led against the 20-year-old Marcos regime. "The image of the country in the eyes of the world has been shattered."
In an interview with The Times while campaigning against the proposed new constitution of President Corazon Aquino, Enrile blamed the Philippine leader for the apparent overreaction by soldiers who gunned down the unarmed demonstrators as they tried to march to the presidential palace to ask Aquino for justice for the nation's impoverished farmers.
'Blood on Its Hands'
"The government has blood on its hands, and how to wash (away) that blood is a very difficult thing to do," said Enrile, who served for 10 months as Aquino's defense minister before she fired him last November. "Our president does not want to be bothered by people who want to talk to her.
"They can talk to foreigners who come to the palace because they are in nice suits. But they cannot talk to the poor people because they are wearing rags."
Aquino, meanwhile, spent Saturday traveling through the central Philippines appealing for voter support for her new draft constitution.
In the central city of Tacloban, she called the killings of the peasants a "sad thing" and said she was "very concerned and disturbed" by the incident. She added, however, that she is "prepared to sacrifice my life" to protect democracy, and she warned that in the coming week, leading up to the Feb. 2 constitutional referendum, more violence is likely.
Her foes on the political left continued their attacks Saturday on Aquino and on the military for its repression Thursday of the peasants' demonstration, a development that has left the middle class puzzled and concerned about whether last February's "people power" revolt against Marcos actually changed the way their country functions.
"We're afraid that if this practice continues, this government is going to be more and more alienated from the people," Leandro Alejandro, a leader of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, told reporters at a Manila press conference.
Alejandro announced that several leftist groups have scheduled a large "indignation march" on the presidential palace Monday. Alejandro and other leftist leaders pledged that the marchers, like the peasants last Thursday, will be unarmed but will attempt to push through any barricades thrown up on the way to the palace. On Thursday, soldiers opened fire after the marchers began pushing through the first police line, trying to reach the palace.
Enrile, who served as defense minister for more than a decade under Marcos, said last week's military response was more brutal than any under Marcos, who was the object of protest marches more than 100 times while he ruled the nation with an iron hand.
While he was serving in Aquino's government, he said, "normally . . . we never deployed soldiers to handle crowd control. We only used the police. And normally, when you have troops in the vicinity of the palace, you have to get the clearance of the president--personally."
Enrile was interviewed en route to one of many stops on a nationwide anti-constitution crusade he began Jan. 2, more than a month after Aquino fired him amid still-unproven rumors that he and his military supporters were planning a coup against Aquino's civilian administration.
Commenting on the brutality of Thursday's repression of the peasants' march, Enrile said, "The image of the military has lost whatever it gained, and it's back to what it was in the previous regime--maybe worse than ever."
Enrile said that many officers and soldiers have told him that they are more unhappy now than they ever were under Marcos' highly politicized chief of staff, Gen. Fabian C. Ver, and he questioned whether Aquino still controls the 200,000-member armed forces.
"We come to the ultimate question," he said. "Just who is running this government?"