MANILA — Nearly all of President Corazon Aquino's Cabinet locked arms Monday and joined more than 15,000 militant leftists who marched on Aquino's presidential palace to protest last week's killings of 19 peasant demonstrators outside the palace gates.
Aquino had personally ordered her entire Cabinet to join the marchers in a shrewd strategy aimed at defusing mounting anger from the nation's political left and averting another blood bath that would have deepened the crisis facing her young government.
On the surface, the march, led by the Movement of Filipino Farmers, the same group that was attacked by military riot troops last week, appeared to resurrect the "people's power" coalition that brought Aquino to power and drove Ferdinand E. Marcos into exile 11 months ago.
Wealthy society women, university intellectuals and other members of Aquino's so-called "middle forces" joined ragged peasants and members of the Communist New People's Army as they marched under red banners demanding justice for the 19 peasants shot to death when they tried to present their demands to Aquino last Thursday.
But there were lingering fears that the political right and the military, which Aquino had ordered to take up positions well away from the protesters' route Monday, would feel alienated by Aquino's attempts to renew her ties to the left.
"Well, all I can say is it worked--nobody's going to get killed out here now," Agriculture Minister Ramon Mitra said as he walked arm in arm with the peasant leaders. The military was not consulted on the strategy, Mitra added.
He conceded that last week's killings have done "very, very bad damage" to the image of Aquino and the nation, and he was uncertain whether Monday's strategy would help repair it.
The protest leaders, who had pledged to march beyond the bridge where their supporters were shot to death and into the palace grounds Monday, were surprised and impressed by the Cabinet ministers' gesture.
"I guess we're seeing some genuine attempts for national reconciliation," said Joe Castro, a leader of the leftist People's Party after the first of Aquino's ministers joined the marchers half a mile from the palace.
"But after the gesture, it must be followed through with concrete actions . . . and the concrete moves will have to be coming fast."
As the marchers passed the main palace gates, which had been torn down by members of the same leftist groups the night Marcos fled last February, they sang nationalist songs with their fists raised, and a leader standing on a jeep shouted through a megaphone: "The Aquino regime is worse than the Marcos dictatorship!" and "The government of Cory Aquino is serving the interests of foreigners!"
Deployment of Troops
Before the march began, Aquino and the military had been deeply concerned about the possibility of another round of bloodshed. More than 2,000 riot troops had been deployed around the palace, and Aquino met for more than an hour with the leaders of the peasant movement and other leftist groups.
The meeting ended in a stalemate, and in a three-hour rally before the march, protest leaders again angrily called on Aquino to implement true land reform. Less than 2% of the Philippines' population owns one-quarter of the wealth.
Behind a makeshift stage at the rally outside Manila's General Post Office stood a graphic, 20-foot mural of a dead peasant with bullet holes and a stake through his hand, lying in a pool of blood beside a pile of spent shell casings.
"When the Marcos loyalists took over the Manila Hotel (last July), they were armed, and they wanted to take over the government, but their punishment was only 30 push-ups," declared peasant leader Jaime Tadeo from the podium. "But the farmers who are peacefully marching for land reform are killed.
"The important thing is the challenge we are facing. If we do not move, they will wipe us all out through hunger and violence."
And Tadeo called on Aquino to take down the barricades on the Mendiola Bridge, where the protesters were killed. "It is like they are putting a wall between the president and the people," Tadeo complained. "This government should be building bridges, not blocking them off."
The left was not alone in building up the pressure on Aquino--herself a wealthy landlord who owns a 12,000-acre feudal hacienda north of Manila--to begin a sincere land-reform program.
Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, the nation's senior religious leader, declared during a Sunday Mass, "We ask our government, in the wake of this tragedy, to turn its urgent attention to the issues of land reform and the concerns most closely related with it."
Sin, one of Aquino's closest personal advisers, also urged the government to "repent" and take conciliatory steps to reunify the crumbling coalition that brought it to power.