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Drowning of Revered Icon Symbolizes Filipinos' Fear : Fighting Between Government, Rebels Rips Bicol Region

October 15, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

NAGA, Philippines — The omen came during one of the Philippines' most important religious festivals. For the first time in more than 300 years, the Virgin Mary drowned in the Bicol River.

It happened during the annual Penafrancia, a festival that attracts millions of Roman Catholics each year to this remote provincial capital 276 miles southeast of Manila.

As the festival approached its climactic moment, an ancient and revered icon of the Virgin Mary, which many Filipinos think has miraculous healing powers, toppled into the river from the pagoda on which it stood and sank to the bottom.

Petrified Spectators

Frantic priests and nuns dived in and searched desperately, and within 10 minutes they had recovered the muddied statue.

But, by then, it was too late. Spectators were petrified. What did this portend for the future?

That was on Sept. 19. Today, the Bicol region is a focal point of fear, a combat zone that reflects the price that Filipinos are paying for political instability, social polarization and a persistent armed insurgency under President Corazon Aquino.

Bicol is occupied by thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. Ambushes and liquidations are a daily occurrence in the tiny, remote villages that have become battlegrounds in the escalated war between the government and the Communist guerrillas. Hundreds of refugees have swarmed down from the mountain villages to find shelter in town centers.

The people of Bicol are certain that all their troubles can be traced to the incident at the river involving the Virgin Mary. Church leaders are trying to reassure the 3.4 million people of Bicol (about 85% of whom are Catholic) that all is not lost.

"We are going on the radio every day . . . to tell them to be calm," said Msgr. Sofio Balce, the bishop of the province of Camarines Sur, of which Naga is the capital. "We are telling them that they are not at fault; they are not being punished for the desecration of the Virgin.

"But, you ask whether this is an ill omen. I would say yes. I'm sure we all believe it is perhaps a sign of something--a sign that things are not as they should be."

Just 24 hours after the festival, the civil war took a turn for the worse in Bicol, a 150-mile-long peninsula that had been connected to the rest of Manila's island of Luzon only by two narrow bridges, one of which was a railway bridge.

On Sept. 20, Communist guerrillas, seeking to capitalize on disarray in the Philippine armed forces after August's bloody coup attempt against Aquino, blew up the railway bridge. The guerrillas had dynamited the road bridge two weeks before. With both bridges down, the entire region is now cut off from the nation's capital for the first time in nearly a century.

As a result, the prices of goods from Manila have soared, while the prices the region's farmers get for their abundant crops have plummeted. Several mayors said that dozens of infants are dying from pneumonia and other curable diseases because no doctor can reach them.

Troops Moved In

Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, chief of the armed forces, said the Communists are using Bicol to demonstrate their increased strength. He has ordered more than 1,000 crack Scout Ranger troops into the region, along with howitzers and armed helicopters.

Manila's newspapers carry daily accounts of the situation. One article appeared under the headline, "Martial Law for Bicol Likely." Another headline: "Vigilantes Back Bicol Offensive."

Indeed, vigilante squads have joined in the fighting on the government side, along with the 2,000 soldiers stationed in the region. Vigilantes and guerrillas alike have taken to killing suspected informers, according to human rights officials.

Still, despite all the firepower in the region's six provinces, hardly a shot has been fired in anything like formal combat since Ramos said the Communists were using Bicol--long a guerrilla stronghold--to seize the advantage after the Aug. 28 coup attempt.

According to battalion commanders interviewed recently, there were only three direct encounters between the guerrillas and government troops during September. The army has recorded six liquidation killings and six incidents of sabotage.

These figures, compared to statistics for the rest of the year, appear to confirm comments by military commanders that the government is on the defensive here. In the first nine months of 1987, 82 government troops were killed, compared to 70 rebels confirmed dead, according to military officers in Legaspi, the region's capital. Most of the encounters have been initiated by guerrillas.

"I wouldn't say we're winning the war in the Bicol," one combat officer said. "I'm not sure we're losing either. The one thing I can say is that the (Communists) are definitely growing. And what we have here now is largely psychological warfare."

1,300 Guerrillas

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