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Cacophony of Gunfire, Firecrackers Creates Virtual War Zone : 11 Dead, 1,000 Hurt as Manila Greets New Year

January 02, 1988|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — At least 11 people were killed and nearly 1,000 seriously injured in Manila on Friday as Filipinos rang in 1988 with their traditional annual orgy of gunfire, grenades and hundreds of tons of explosives.

Hospital authorities said that all but one of the fatalities were caused by accidental knifings or stray bullets fired into the air during the hours that Manilans turn the capital into a virtual war zone on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Most of the injuries consisted of severe burns, cuts and severed hands caused by the millions of firecrackers and homemade bombs that authorities estimate were detonated in the last two days to celebrate the New Year.

All fireworks are illegal in the Philippines, as is the casual use of firearms and dynamite, but the tradition of marking the New Year with a deafening cacophony of explosions and other noise is so strong that even police and soldiers participate.

3 Soldiers Dismissed

In an effort to curb the practice, the Philippine armed forces chief, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, on Friday announced the dismissal of three soldiers who had been caught firing their weapons into the air on Christmas Eve, another day that Filipinos celebrate with gunfire and bombs.

Several hospital administrators said they believed the casualty toll from this year's celebrations was larger than in previous years, which one speculated could have been a reaction to the country's continuing economic troubles.

"A lot of people may have just been blowing off steam and escaping from the harsh realities of the times," he said, asking not to be identified by name.

In the days leading up to the celebration, though, illegal fireworks manufacturers were privately complaining that the economic disaster left behind by exiled dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 had cut into their holiday sales this year.

Despite the violent celebrations of New Year's Eve before, the city was largely filled with hopeful joy Friday, the day when the Philippines shed a year of attempted military coups, an increasingly bloody Communist insurgency that alone claimed 3,500 lives in 1987 and ongoing election violence that has left nearly 50 more dead in the past three weeks.

Picnickers Jam Parks

The city's downtown parks were jammed throughout the day with hundreds of thousands of picnickers. Balloons mixed with exploding firecrackers. Children played in the grass, and young lovers strolled along Manila Bay.

President Aquino issued a New Year's message to the nation in which she stressed her accomplishments in 1987--"the many milestones we have achieved."

During the year, she said, her government brought the nation a new constitution, a new, popularly elected legislature and launched an economic recovery program that spurred growth of more than 5%.

"From darkness we have seen light," she said. "From despair we have given hope. From helplessness we have injected a national resolve among our people, who have since regained faith in themselves."

Aquino appealed for peace in a nation where murder and war has been escalating, and she asked her increasingly divided nation to unite.

One prominent political analyst in Manila was not optimistic.

Sees Downcast Mood

"The nation enters the New Year with a downcast mood," declared Amando Doronila, editor of the respected daily, Manila Chronicle. "The magic spell cast by the uprising (that overthrew Marcos) has dissipated. The euphoria that electrified the nation at the beginning of 1987 has been shattered by the turbulence of transition and the disasters that crowned the year with a wreath instead of laurels."

The reference was to the inter-island ferry disaster that left at least 1,500 passengers dead on Dec. 20 when the ship collided with a tanker. An investigation of the collisions has been launched, but it was suspended for the holidays after the owners of the two ships spent two days arguing over which ship hit which.

Doronila noted that the Aquino government "has weathered the crises of transition. . . . But it has come out of the crises of instability a much diminished center of authority and national direction.

"On the basis of its muddling through, Filipinos have now lowered expectations of President Aquino."

Most Filipinos apparently agree.

A public opinion poll released Thursday by a Manila watchdog group, the Asia Research Foundation, found that only one-third of all Filipinos believe that 1988 will be better than 1987. Less than a fourth of the respondents said they thought 1988 would be a year of prosperity, and half said they were certain that unemployment will get worse in the coming year.

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