Philippines: Old Families Strike Back


December 3, 2021: President Duterte is running for the senate after his term as president is over in 2022. C orrupt Filipinos, especially those from the wealthy old families, believe that once Duterte is gone the good old ways will return. Presidents can only serve one term of six years and that is never long enough to make a serious dent in corruption. Yet former presidents, especially notably effective ones, retain a lot of influence on who gets elected and what happens after the election. His anti-corruption efforts will need all the help they can get because his likely successor is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, an extraordinarily corrupt politician who illegally held onto power from 1972 to 1986. He was finally ousted by Cory Aquino, who was elected in 1986 and served one term. There followed several more traditional presidents, who paid attention to their Old Family connections and the term limits.

Duterte was unique because he lacked such strong connections. Through his mother he was distantly related to several Old Families, but his father was an outsider, with ancestors who came from China. This makes you less acceptable to the Old Families. President Duterte’s predecessor was an Aquino, whose mother also served as president and the one who led the effort to overthrow dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Now a son of Ferdinand Marcos is the leading contender to replace Duterte. The Marcos and Aquino clans are considered Old Families. The Aquinos, mother Corey and son Benigno Aquino III, but tried and failed to make much of a dent in corruption.

The major obstacles for any new president are family and friends, especially if both come from Old Families. The Aquinos are one of a few thousand families that control the economy, and have done so for centuries. This control predates the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the 16th century. The tribal confederations the Spaniards encountered already had their elite families in control, and the conquering Spanish married into these clans, creating a Spanish/Malay ruling class which persists to this day. These ruling families never fully accepted democracy, which was imposed by America a century ago, after having deposed the Spanish colonial government. The Spanish controlled the Philippines by working with the rich families. It was a feudal arrangement that the United States was unable to change much. The families feud a lot, but will unite to face a threat to the feudal system that keeps them in control. If the new president is going to succeed, he or she will have to prosecute and jail many members of their own class, including friends and family. That's hard to do. When Cory Aquino was president, she herself was not corrupt, but could not bring herself to punish family and friends who were. Any new president could trigger a civil war, or at least a lot of violence because many of the families have private armies), by cracking down on corruption. After all, most of it is among people who are the government. And those people are related to most of those most qualified (by education and experience) to replace them. Many members of the ruling families favor changing the rules, eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) corruption, and making it easier to grow the economy. But many powerful people like things just the way they are.

Duterte was not Old Family and unexpectedly won by promising to do nationwide what he had done in southern city that went from lots of crime to little crime when Duterte was mayor. Duterte kept his promises, including efforts to go after the corrupt officials in the government, who were largely Old Family and could not pull any family strings to avoid prosecution. His successor is likely to be Old Family and the leading candidate is Bongbong (his nickname) Marcos, son of one of the most corrupt Old Family presidents who says he will continue the Duterte policies, except for trying to negotiate with China.

December 1, 2021: In the south (Maguindanao province) security forces encountered some Islamic terrorists associated with BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and Abu Sayyaf. The Islamic terrorists were outnumbered and fled into the darkness after a brief exchange of fire. One of BIFF’s men was killed. The body was soon identified as Adsam, the son of a BIFF faction header and bomb builder Hassan Indal. This faction has taken heavy losses in the last few months and there are not many of them left.

November 24, 2021: In the south (Maguindanao province) there was another arranged surrender by a BIFF commander and his followers. All belonged to the Karialan Faction and all six turned themselves in with their weapons and told interrogators what they knew. There are less than a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they have remained active for so long. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. Just surviving has become a full-time BIFF activity.

November 23, 2021: In the south (Zamboanga City) soldiers arrested Kalmi Mustala, a wanted Abu Sayyaf bomb builder and kidnapper who was hiding out in a village outside the city. Tips from local civilians led to his hideout and capture alive. There were several active arrests warrants for Mustala.

In the South China Sea. t he Filipino navy once more got past a Chinese blockade of a Filipino base on Second Thomas Reef and delivered supplies to the small Filipino garrison there. Although this reef is 200 kilometers from Palawan (indisputably part of the Philippines) and thus recognized by international law as Filipino, China also claims ownership. Back in early 2018 China moved a lot more ships, plus aircraft overhead, to this area in a failed effort to prevent resupply of the detachment of Filipino marines stationed there on a World War II era landing ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) since 1999. The Filipino navy deliberately grounded the LST on Second Thomas Reef to provide a place for this “observation team”. In 2013 Chinese patrol ships came within nine kilometers of the LST, which China insists is there illegally. The Philippines warned China that it would resist any attempts to use force against the grounded ship and while the Chinese still tries to interfere with supply ships, they have stayed away. In 2015 China protested the Filipino effort to make repairs on the LST. The Philippines protested the Chinese moves but only after a two-week delay because of disagreements within the Filipino government about how to deal with the situation. China is buying a lot of influence in the Philippines but at the same time most Filipinos fear being “conquered” by an increasingly aggressive China. The Philippines also went ahead with upgrades to its other disputed islands in the Spratly Islands.

November 15, 2021: The latest annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index showed that the Philippines continues to be as corrupt as it has been since 2021, with corruption score of 34, which means they are stuck in the middle of the list. Transparency International measures corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the lowest score are currently Syria, South Sudan and Somalia with scores of 14 or 15. The least corrupt nations are currently Denmark and New Zealand, each with a score of 88.

November 22, 2021: President Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping clashed at a special virtual (teleconference) China- ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting to commemorate three decades of Chinese relationships with the association members. Duterte accused China of using intimidation to conquer and take control of the South China Sea. Specifically, Duterte accused Chinese coast guard vessels of using water cannons to prevent Filipino ships from resupplying the small military garrison on a grounded LST at Second Thomas Reef. Xi responded that the coast guard vessels were protecting Chinese territory. Xi ignored international treaties and a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that the Chinese claims were false.

Most ASEAN members agree with this assessment but China responded by demanding that outsiders (like the United States) do not interfere with a local issue. China has put a lot of economic and diplomatic pressure on ASEAN members to either back China or not openly oppose Chinese efforts to take possession of the South China Sea.

Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN has since then expanded to include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Most of these nations oppose China's violation of theEEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) in the South China Sea. China long had a staunch (and paid for) ally in ASEAN (Cambodia) who blocked attempts to unify and oppose China. XI also clashed with other ASEAN leaders over the absence of Myanmar at this meeting. That was because China and ASEAN disagree over the legitimacy of the new Myanmar military government, which forced out recently elected leaders who wanted to reduce the power of the military and Chinese interests inside Myanmar. Cambodia is not a staunch ally as China would like and the failure to get ASEAN to support the new Myanmar government was a very public rebuke of China for its outlaw tactics. The day after this clash between Duterte and Xi the Filipino team on the Second Thomas Reef LST were resupplied. The Chinese coast guard ships were still there but they did not interfere. Chinese media proclaimed the China-ASEAN virtual meeting a great success without dwelling on arguments Xi got into with over Chinese misbehavior against several ASEAN members.

October 30, 2021: In the south (Bukidnon province) troops located and attacked a group of 30 NPA (New People’s Army) gunmen after receiving a tip from local civilians. Among the NPA dead was Jorge Madlos, a senior NPA leader and organizer who has been with the NPA for over fifty years and has been ill but not inactive for the last decade. Because of Madlos, Bukidnon province was one of the few remaining NPA strongholds. Most of the political violence in the Philippines since World War II has come from communists, who had been around but not very active before World War II. The communists became a major part of the armed opposition fighting the brutal 1942-45 Japanese occupation. After independence in 1946 leftist rebels continued fighting, trying to establish a communist dictatorship. That proved difficult to do. A major reorganization took place in the 1960s, resulting in the creation of the NPA in 1969. The new communist rebel organization adopted the Chinese “Maoist” long term strategy. That was not very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they were in charge. Enthusiasm for a "communist solution" went sharply downhill after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist allies between 1989 and 1991. That massive failure of communist states left the NPA much weaker ideologically and vulnerable to subsequent amnesty programs. A decade ago, NPA leaders admitted that they had only a small fraction of their peak (in the 1980s) strength of 26,000 armed members. There were some serious attempts to reverse the decline in popularity. NPA gunmen were instructed to behave better around civilians and the NPA were found giving some civilians, especially health or aid workers, cash compensation of a few hundred dollars each for wounds received during NPA attacks on soldiers or police. The government increased its efforts to provide medical care for such victims of NPA violence, the NPA tried to compete and found they couldn’t afford it.

Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is increasingly obtained from local civilians or NPA members that surrendered. Because of that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested or killed.




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