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Aquino's Control Tested : Security Reaches Peak for Summit in Manila

December 12, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — An Indonesian armada of frigates, destroyers and armored landing craft sailed into Manila Bay on Friday, carrying helicopters, bulletproof limousines and troops. The Malaysians also sent a navy gunboat.

The Bruneians were taking no chances either. That wealthy Borneo island nation this week sent two of Sultan Muda Hassanal Bolkiah's bulletproof Rolls-Royce automobiles for the occasion.

The reason for such goings on is a meeting beginning Monday of the heads of state of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, the first summit gathering in more than 10 years of the six national leaders in that regional alliance.

So extraordinary were the security elements reaching Manila from its neighbors this week that one local newspaper proclaimed in a Page 1 headline Friday: "Bigwigs Bringing Own Fortress."

The Philippine military has likewise laid on unprecedented security measures.

Elite Unit Trained

For two months, a crack force of 3,000 soldiers has trained in countersabotage and anti-terrorism techniques, taking up positions this week in street-corner machine-gun nests and security posts at the 25-acre summit site on a peninsula jutting into Manila Bay.

Nearly the entire Philippine navy has been deployed in waters surrounding the site, and police have searched every manhole and cranny around and beneath the International Convention Center. The security cordon around the center is now so tight that not even the journalists--about 1,000 of them--accredited to cover the summit will be allowed inside.

The reason for such unprecedented security is that half a dozen of the world's most security-conscious leaders will be coming into the heart of a city notorious for murder and now terrorism--a city where the effects of a Communist guerrilla war and the depredations of armed ultra-rightists have combined to cast a shadow over one of Asia's most beautiful and hospitable capitals.

Military authorities say that already an organized attempt is under way to disrupt the summit.

Three Bombs in Manila

Three bombs have rocked Manila in the last week alone. Four other bombs were discovered before they could be exploded. Government officials predict more such incidents before and after the summit opens Monday morning.

President Corazon Aquino and her top security officials have guaranteed that the summit site itself will be safe throughout the two-day meeting, with an agenda already shortened by a day to allay security fears among the visiting heads of state, who will include Suharto of Indonesia and Thailand's Prem Tinsulanonda, both former army generals.

Aquino will move out of her home and her office at the presidential palace for the duration of the conference, taking a suite in the Plaza Hotel, where the other leaders will be staying, adjacent to the summit site. Security precautions at that hotel have included background checks on even the humblest employee.

For all the preparation, though, political analysts expect few important or concrete developments to emerge from the gathering of regional leaders.

To Sign Economic Accords

According to an agenda formalized in Bali, Indonesia, two weeks ago, the association's six nations--Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines--will sign economic agreements reducing tariffs and other trade barriers to facilitate regional trade on several products.

But the agreements will cover only such inconsequential items as Philippine-made snowplows, something in little demand in the five other tropical and subtropical nations. None of the region's key exports, items such as textiles, agricultural products, crude oil and light manufactured goods are likely to be included in the tariff-reduction accords.

And no one expects official discussion of such issues as the two U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam or the potential for mutual security agreements or treaties in the region.

So little of substance is expected from the summit meeting that the Far Eastern Economic Review, the region's most authoritative weekly magazine, titled a recent cover story on the summit: "ASEAN Summit: Who Cares?"

President Aquino clearly cares more than most.

Aquino to Meet Leaders

Top presidential aides have said they view the summit as an important event to help Aquino establish the legitimacy and effectiveness of her 21-month-old government equal to that of the other nations of the region.

Aquino will also hold private meetings with Suharto and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Both men are powerful regional leaders from whom the politically inexperienced Aquino has said often that she has received important personal advice and knowledge about how to govern effectively and cope with Communist rebellion.

So important is a smooth and friendly summit to the Aquino administration that it dropped its 25-year-old sovereignty claim to the nearby Malaysian state of Sabah last week to accommodate visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. In 1962, when the Philippines lodged its original claim to Sabah, where nearly half a million Filipino Muslim refugees now live, the Malaysian government declared that no Malaysian prime minister would set foot on Philippine soil until the Sabah claim was dropped.

Philippine military officials say that a safe summit will prove that, despite predictions by the president's critics, the troubled Aquino government is capable of controlling this violence-prone nation.

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