February 13, 2016:
The peace deal with MILF apparently cannot get passed by the current congress. MILF leaders say they will keep the peace and wait to see if the next congress thinks differently. National elections will be held this May and that will produce a new president (restricted to one six year term) and a new congress (most with three year terms). There are congressional elections every three years and the newly elected congress will take power in early July. MILF expects the new congress to either pass or reject the peace deal by the end of the year. This peace deal, if approved by congress, creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. It was expected that this new law would be difficult to get through congress. It was always understood that because of the 2016 elections the treaty would have an opportunity to try getting approval from two different congresses. Although there are a lot of incumbents, the 250 members of the House of Representatives are restricted to nine years (three terms). MILF also has to get the approval of most Moslems in the south, which should be a lot easier, even if all of them don’t get all they wanted. The government wanted to get the Bangsamoro laws approved before the 2016 presidential elections so the politicians who handled the successful negotiations would get full credit for the peace deal.
While the Chinese threat and the MILF treaty will be debated during the election campaigns, the most important issue, corruption, is one item few politicians want to hear, or talk, about. That’s because the latest Transparency International ranking of corruption worldwide shows the Philippines losing ground. In 2014 the Philippines ranked 85th while in 2015 the Philippines fell to 95th place. Number one (Denmark) is the least corrupt and 175 (Somalia and North Korea in a tie) is the most. So no matter what the government says about its efforts against corruption, international surveys like this are more trusted by most Filipinos and make it clear that Filipino politicians are all talk and no solutions when it comes to corruption. Even more embarrassing is that the local bully, China, is actually making progress against corruption. Currently China ranks 83rd. That comes after China moved up the list 24 places since 2013. More worrisome to Filipinos is the fact that the least corrupt countries share characteristics (free speech, free media, fair courts) that are lacking in China mainly because China is still a communist police state. Technically the Philippines has free speech, free media and fair courts but in practice the corruption limits those freedoms. Despite its advantages the Chinese are making progress against corruption and China is now considered less corrupt than the Philippines.
Meanwhile China continues to insist that it owns the South China Sea despite what anyone else in the neighborhood believes or international treaties say. The neighbors (especially Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines) continue to protest and build up their much smaller air and naval forces. Many Filipinos doubt that the United States would stand fast if China pushed hard. There are no signs that China is going to back down when it comes to its many territorial claims on neighbors. Yet the United States recently repeated assurances to the Philippines that American warships and military aircraft will continue to challenge Chinese efforts to enforce Chinese claims on disputed waters and small islands. Since last October American warships and aircraft have regularly moved through sea or air space that China insists is Chinese territory that foreigners must have Chinese permission before entering. So far the Chinese have not even tried to block the U.S. ship and aircraft “violations.” If China decided to push back against the United States many Filipinos fear the Americans would back off.
In neighboring Malaysia security officials believe that Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists based in the Philippines are the greater threat than Malaysian based Islamic terrorists. This assessment comes in the wake of several arrests of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members in Malaysia during 2015. Malaysia has shown it is able to deal with local recruits for Islamic terrorist groups, including ISIL, the current favorite among young Moslems determined to participate in terrorist violence. Abu Sayyaf is another story and for over a decade these Filipino Islamic terrorists have been crossing the Sulu Sea at night to carry out attacks in nearby Malaysia, usually Sabah. The most recent such raid took place in 2014 (one Malaysian policeman killed and another kidnapped). The worst incident occurred in in 2000 when Abu Sayyaf took 21 people from a Sabah vacation resort. Most of those hostages were released within five months after the payment of ransoms. After that incident security was increased on both sides of the Sulu Sea and foreign tourists soon began returning to the Malaysian resorts. Small speedboats can make it across the Sulu Sea to Sabah quickly because some of the smaller Filipino islands are less than 20 kilometers from Sabah. Filipino and Malaysian patrol boats now monitor this patch of sea but not on a 24/7 basis and at night a couple of small speedboats are easy to miss. Security was increased again after the 2014 attack because tourist business always suffer when Abu Sayyaf makes an attack in any part of Sabah. Although the 2014 attack failed to reach any tourists, it is not good for business and Malaysia is pressing the Philippines to do more to stop this sort of cross border crime. Abu Sayyaf has, for years, sustained itself off kidnap ransoms. Foreigners are preferred but failing that Abu Sayyaf will take locals for much lower ransoms. Abu Sayyaf are the most experienced and persistent Islamic terrorists in the region which is why Malaysia considers them a bigger threat.
ISIL has been trying to recruit in the Philippines without much success. In January Abu Sayyaf officially pledged its loyalty to ISIL and revealed new, more aggressive, leaders. In late 2015 ISIL announced that it was planning on moving into the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. So far ISIL has not been able to carry out any notable attacks in the region. MILF has openly announced its opposition to ISIL and the formation of a group of local Moslem clerics willing to openly preach against ISIL. In many parts of the world ISIL is able to terrorize such outspoken clerical opponents into silence. MILF is telling ISIL that such hostility towards local clerics will not be tolerated by Filipino Moslems. MILF is also making this anti-ISIL effort to calm down non-Moslem members of Congress who oppose the peace deal because of fears that the autonomous Moslem government will tolerate some Islamic terror groups and, in effect, make the southwest Philippines another Islamic terrorist haven. These fears are real because since the 1990s dozens of wanted Islamic terrorists have been found hiding out among Moslems of the Philippines. MILF leaders are serious about their anti-Islamic terrorist stance. The basic fact is that the four million Moslems in the big island in the south (Mindanao) were outnumbered by Christians who had moved there in the last half century. Nationwide there are about 11 million Moslems and nearly 90 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and more economically successful. The Moslems believe they should run Mindanao even if they are the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the government are willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao (and the rest of the Philippines) does not. The current MILF peace treaty agrees to a small portion of Mindanao will become an autonomous Moslem majority region. MILF has about 10,000 armed members, but a quarter, or more, belong to factions that have turned into common criminals, or are more loyal to clan leaders than MILF. After decades of fighting the Christian majority most MILF leaders accept that violence will not work and that the Christian dominated security forces can, and have, defeated armed Moslem resistance and have no qualms about doing it again and again until the Moslems accept peace.
February 9, 2016: In the south (Cotabato City) a leader of BIFF was captured while in a separate operation his son, also a BIFF member, was killed. BIFF is an anti-peace treaty 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 was very unpopular.
February 4, 2016: In the south (Compostela Valley province) two clashes with the NPA left four soldiers dead and three wounded. At least two rebels were also killed. All the army casualties were caused by locally made NPA bombs. The NPA has always had difficulty defeating soldiers in gun battles and in this part of the country has had more success using these remotely controlled bombs to cover the escape of rebels or to ambush (with roadside bombs) reinforcements and ambulances rushing to the scene of a clash.
The 114 used American M113 armored personnel carriers that were purchased a year ago were turned over to the Filipino Mechanized Infantry Division (MID). Deliveries took place in December and after that there were inspections and some additional local modifications before the M113s were turned over to the MID. The army has had a lot of success with used and refurbished M113s. For example in 2014 an Israeli firm was hired to rebuild the structural, mechanical and electrical elements of 28 older M113s. This also included installing fire control systems as well as night vision sensors along with GPS, intercom and radios. The Philippines had the turrets from 14 of its decommissioned Scorpion reconnaissance vehicles installed in most of these vehicles. These two man turrets are equipped with a 76mm gun that can provide excellent infantry support. Four of the M113s were equipped to tow damaged vehicles or carry casualties and all 28 M113s were back in service by early 2015. M113s are a 1960s design but proved very sturdy and useful and many nations still use them. Used M113s are particularly popular because they are cheap and easy to maintain and upgrade. The MID has 350 armored vehicles and usually sends detachments where needed rather than operating in division size actions.
January 28, 2016: In the south (Davao Occidental province) troops clashed with NPA and after a 30 minute gun battle at least one rebel was killed and the other twenty or so fled. The troops pursued. The rebels try to take their dead and wounded with them to prevent active members from being identified.
January 26, 2016: Taiwan revealed that earlier this month one of its Coast Guard ships used a water cannon to drive two Vietnamese fishing boats from one of the Spratly Islands that is claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The increasingly aggressive Chinese claims on most of the South China Sea has made other nations in the region more aggressive in defending their claims against all rivals.
January 25, 2016: In the north (Batangas province) a dozen air force commandos were on patrol and encountered some NPA gunmen. The rebels soon fled but not before killing one of the commandos.
January 24, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga del Norte province) renegade MILF members were believed responsible for ambushing a police patrol and wounding two policemen and two nearby civilians.