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Aquino Would Give Up Estate if Law Requires

March 04, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — Philippine President Corazon Aquino said Tuesday that she and her family will give up their 12,000-acre family hacienda only if they are required by law to do so.

At the same time, she announced a nationwide land reform program that she said she hopes to finance through the sale of bankrupt firms financed by government loans in the Marcos era.

Soon afterward, about 1,500 farmers marched through the streets, and Jaime Tadeo, the leader of a leftist farmer's group that has been demanding comprehensive land reform, described Aquino's announcement as "proof that the government is not serious about this issue."

"This land reform proposal is really just an attempt at a counterinsurgency program," he said.

Aquino, appearing at a press conference, read a presidential proclamation ordering that the government use the proceeds from the sale of dozens of bankrupt firms to help tenant farmers buy the land they till.

Demanded by Insurgents

Breaking up the centuries-old feudal structure of land ownership in the Philippines has been the principal demand of leaders of a Communist insurgency that has raged for 18 years and has cost 20,000 lives in the past seven years. Several leaders of the Communist New People's Army have said recently that they will lay down their arms only after Aquino distributes fertile land to the peasants.

The president said Tuesday that land reform "has long been overdue" and that if the problem is to be resolved, it "must be met head-on with massive funding."

Independent analysts promptly criticized the proclamation. They said it relies on a questionable funding source to finance a program that the president conceded has yet to be drafted.

Amando Doronila, editor of the Manila Chronicle, described the announcement as cosmetic.

Aquino said the program will be funded by the sale of long-dormant corporations that were financed with government loans and then raided and bankrupted by friends of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was driven from office a year ago.

Aquino said Tuesday that the fair market value of the companies totals about 23 billion pesos ($1.1 billion). It is not clear, though, that anyone is interested in buying them.

Called Critical Issue

Finance Minister Jaime Ongpin told reporters Saturday that land reform is one of the most critical issues faced by the government. He said the president must act decisively on the issue before a new Congress is elected May 11.

"I am hoping that the accelerated land reform will be in place before the Congress," he said. "That's the main thing I worry about, because if that goes to the Congress, it may take a long time, and we can't afford it. My goodness--I mean, the delay. . . . "

The president said Tuesday that she is only now ordering her Cabinet to draw up a comprehensive land reform program, and several aides said this could take many months.

Peasant leader Tadeo, who heads the Filipino Farmers' Movement, which claims nearly 1 million members, said Tuesday's march was in response to Aquino's land reform proclamation.

The marchers carried posters with such messages as "Land Not Bullets" and "Justice for the Victims of the Mendiola Massacre." Both referred to the fatal shooting of 19 peasant marchers just over a month ago at the Mendiola Bridge near the presidential palace. On that occasion, the marchers were trying to reach the palace to present their demands for land reform.

Carry Symbolic Coffin

The peasants marched to the same bridge Tuesday, carrying a symbolic white coffin and a black wooden replica of the M-16 rifle issued to the military. Riot troops stopped them with barbed wire barricades.

At the president's press conference, reporters questioned her closely on whether she plans to break up her family estate to set an example and signal that she is sincere about land reform.

"My brothers and sisters are Filipino citizens like everyone else," she replied. "We will abide by whatever rules and laws are enacted. . . . Whatever is recommended to me, I will do. I leave it to the experts."

There are thousands of tenant farmers on the Aquino land, a vast tract that contains an 18-hole golf course, stables and more than 800 small rooster houses occupied by fighting cocks owned by Aquino's brother, Jose Cojuangco.

Aquino was born and reared on the estate, which is owned jointly by her and her six brothers and sisters. In the past, the president has said that she alone could not decide to break up the land and distribute it among the farmers who work for her family, and she indicated that she would hesitate to break it up because it is one of the few such profitable plantations in the country.

Sees Stability

The president also told the press Tuesday that she believes that her government is politically stable now after last month's referendum that overwhelmingly approved a new constitution

"I certainly hope that the coups are over, and I believe (they are) over," she said. "All things considered, I think everything is OK in the Philippines, and everything will work well."

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