Philippines: Rebels Subdued While China Is Not

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January 3, 2016: The legislature continues to resist approving the peace treaty with the Moslem rebels down south. The fact that there were, once more, Moslem violence against Christians in the south during Christmas season. This was not unexpected because Islamic radicals have been attacking their Christian neighbors for centuries. But one purpose of the new autonomy treaty was to reduce such violence down there and does not seem to be happening. Then again it is no secret that there are still Islamic terrorists active in the south and the Moslem population down there is obviously not united in wanting to abide by the treaty. By the end of 2015 the Moslem separatist group MILF agreed to proceed with the peace deal even if the legislature does not approve all aspects of the autonomy package. Countrywide there is a lot of popular opposition to the autonomy deal in the south and even MILF accepts that they will never have the votes in the legislature to get everything they want. The major problem down there in that a sizable minority of southern Moslems (ten percent or more) want to hold out and keep fighting to establish a separate Moslem state in the south. MILF leaders know this is impossible because a majority of the people in the south are opposed. That includes a majority of the Moslems and the nearly all the non-Moslems down there. Moslems are only eight percent of all Filipinos, and represent an even smaller proportion of the economic activity. MILF wanted control of more of the economy, which meant control of "ancestral Moslem areas" in the south that are now populated by Christians. The Christian majority in the legislature refused to allow domination by Moslems in a larger and more autonomous Moslem south. MILF settled for a smaller autonomous area that had a Moslem majority. This issue is still a big deal for many Moslems and could still turn into an armed rebellion against MILF and the collapse of the plan for an autonomous Moslem area in the south. So far MILF has kept things under control, especially after a January 2015 clash that left 44 police commandos dead. Meanwhile thousands of soldiers and marines in Basilan are still trying to put down of the only large group of Islamic terrorists (Abu Sayyaf) left in the country. These guys have not expanded much mainly because they are basically bandits with a veneer of Islamic radicalism. Abu Sayyaf is mostly about the money but they will cooperate with real Islamic terrorists as it suits them. There are over half a dozen known Islamic terrorist groups in the country but these all have fewer than a hundred (or a few dozen) members each.

China continues to insist that it owns the South China Sea despite what anyone else in the neighborhood believes or international treaties say. The Philippines continues to protest, and build up its tiny air and naval forces. Filipinos are relieved that the United States is taking a more active role in the latter. In the last few months of 2015 American B-52 bombers twice flew through air space in the South China Sea that China now considers Chinese territory. China protested, the United States ignored the protest and also sent surface warships into South China Sea areas China claims sovereignty over. However the second B-52 overflight in December led to an American apology when China protested. Many Filipinos doubt that the United States would stand fast if China pushed hard.

December 31, 2015: In the south (Agusan del Sur) the local NPA released a soldier they had captured three months earlier. This was a goodwill gesture and the local army commander said thanks.

December 30, 2015: At the last minute the Philippines agreed to apply to join the Chinese AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). South Korea also applied and was accepted on March 26th. The U.S. and Japan both declined to join the AIIB. The AIIB is part of a Chinese effort to build an alternative to Western dominated financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank. The AIIB would serve as an option especially for friends of China in Asia. South Korea may openly oppose Chinese claims in the South China Sea but has been very receptive to Chinese investment and Chinese investors have responded enthusiastically. China has used its growing economic power to persuade countries to do what China wants and that often works. This is an ancient Chinese practice and until the 19th century China had the largest economy in the region, and the world. Chinese emperors knew that and acted accordingly.

December 29, 2015: In the south (Sulu Island) Scout Rangers searching for a large group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen caught up with the Islamic terrorists and killed ten of them as the survivors fled. One soldier died in the operation which was part of a larger effort to find Abu Sayyaf camps where kidnapping victims were being held.

December 28, 2015: In the south (Sulu Island) Abu Sayyaf gunmen fired on two military camps, killing marines in one camp and wounding a soldier in another. These were apparently retaliation for over a week of intense military operations in the area that left over fifty Abu Sayyaf men dead or wounded.

China again demanded that the Philippines remove troops and facilities from islands in the South China Sea that have been Filipino (and recognized by international law as such) for a long time. China claims most of the South China Sea now and threatens to use force to eject “trespassers”.

December 26, 2015: Fifty Filipino demonstrators visited Pagasa Island in the South China Sea. This is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is occupied by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. China has been increasingly belligerent in its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. China reacted to the demonstrators visiting by issuing an official protest and repeating its threats. Chinese military and civilian ships are showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels try (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard patrol boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter.

December 24, 2015: In the south (Mindanao) nine Christian villagers were killed by a group of BIFF gunmen. The army, aware that BIFF tends to make attacks like this on major Christian holidays, quickly responded and caught up with the attackers, killing four of them. There were some other, less lethal, attacks and before long over 4,000 Christians in the area had fled their homes. BIFF is an anti-peace MILF faction founded in 2011. MILF was supposed to deal with BIFF but didn’t, apparently because a lot of MILF members have some sympathy for the radical BIFF views. The army believes there are only about a hundred armed BIFF members left, mainly because of several major military operations in areas where BIFF has been active. BIFF has also pledged loyalty to ISIL but has not yet adopted the ISIL practice of committing horrific murders. MILF is increasingly (and openly) critical of BIFF and that may be why BIFF has not been acting like an ISIL franchise. MILF is also angry at BIFF for creating doubts among Christians in parliament where the peace treaty is currently stalled.

December 23, 2015: The national police declared a unilateral truce (suspension of operations) with the NPA. This will last from the 23rd until January 1st. The NPA usually, but not always, cooperates and suspends illegal activities during the truce. The government also reported that the NPA continues to weaken this year, as it has for the last few years. The NPA challenged the government claims but there has been less NPA activity and a growing number of areas where the NPA is no longer present. Many of those living in rural areas where the NPA is still present the leftist rebels are seen mainly as a threat to the local economy. That’s because the NPA increasingly attacks large businesses in rural areas. This is a way of punishing large companies for not paying "revolutionary taxes" (extortion). This is how NPA finances itself and as a result of these attacks the army high command has ordered more efforts to protect companies working in areas that need the jobs. NPA activity discourages economic growth in rural areas. This is a subject NPA leadership would rather not talk about because since the 1990s the NPA has lost its voluntary suppliers of cash and material in rural areas. This is because most people had lost faith in the communist ideology NPA preaches. So now NPA resorts to extortion and theft to survive. This made the NPA even more unpopular. While the NPA still considers itself a leftist revolutionary operation, most of the people they say they are fighting for see the NPA as bandits.

December 22, 2015: In the south (Sulu Island) marines, alerted by local civilians, ambushed a force of 40 Abu Sayyaf gunmen and killed at least five as the rest fled taking wounded (and possibly some dead) with them.

December 21, 2015: The government repeated its pledge to spend $1.8 billion by 2017 and over $21 billion by 2030 on new weapons and equipment for the military. This is in response to the growing threat from China. Despite that some of the increase must go to maintaining and upgrading equipment used to deal with internal problems like Islamic terrorists, Moslem separatists and leftist rebels. Many call these big spending plans unrealistic because the crippled (mainly by corruption) Filipino economy cannot generate that kind of money just for defense. In reality the spending increase, for an already small defense budget, is dependent on the generosity of allies, especially the United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan all of whom have donated ships and other equipment. Cash is also donated but not in the quantities the Philippines wants. No one wants to say it openly, but the corruption in the Philippines makes even allies reluctant to donate money. Meanwhile the foreign aid is a deliberate and successful effort to assist the Philippines in upgrading and expanding its navy despite local poverty and corruption. The Philippines also plans to buy some submarines from South Korea or Japan and is getting three powerful coastal surveillance radars from the United States. Additional ships and helicopters are helping the navy patrol offshore waters and quickly respond to Chinese incursions but this does not change the fact that China can muster far more forces (ships and aircraft) than the Philippines and that will not change much with all the budget increases and generous allies.

December 15, 2015: In the south (Basilan Island) troops clashed with a large group of Abu Sayyaf men and killed 13 of the Islamic terrorists. Two soldiers also died and ten were wounded. One of the Abu Sayyaf dead was later identified as a Malaysian man (Mohd Najib Hussein) known to be a member of ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) who fled Malaysia in July 2015 with other locals also believed to be ISIL members. Mohd Najib Hussein is known to be a skilled bomb maker. He and another Malaysian ISIL member were suspected of hiding out with Abu Sayyaf in Basilan or Sulu. The clash today is part of an operation that has been underway since the 13th and left fifteen Abu Sayyaf and two soldiers dead. This clash was part of an operation that lasted nearly a week had left 26 Abu Sayyaf men dead and one of their rural bases (that could house over 200 people) captured on the 19th.

December 13, 2015: In central Philippines (Panay Island) NPA rebels destroyed construction vehicles and trucks at a power plant.

December 12, 2015: In the south (Compostela Valley province) an NPA ambush using a roadside bomb killed two soldiers and a civilian. Fourteen other people were wounded. The unhurt soldiers quickly went after the NPA men who set off the bomb but the leftist rebels fled.

December 11, 2015: In the south (Negros Occidental province), an army patrol clashed briefly with a dozen NPA rebels leaving two rebels and one soldier dead. The surviving rebels fled leaving several weapons behind.

 

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