President Rodrigo Duterte is, so far, a man of his word and that has a lot of powerful Filipinos, neighbors and allies worried. Duterte got elected president by promising to use unusual methods that had worked during the 22 years he was the mayor of Davao City in the southeast. He was not expected to win because he did not have the support of one of the wealthy parties or wealthy political donors. He was an outsider who promised change, had a convincing track record in local politics and ran a highly effective and inexpensive campaign. Duterte is very much an outsider and keeps reminding everyone of that fact. For example he is not from (or connected to) one of the old, rich and corrupt families that have dominated Filipino politics for centuries. He is a lawyer, served as a prosecutor and then mayor and considered quite competent, but very unorthodox and not bothered with bending or breaking laws to do what his constituents want; reduce crime and corruption while improving the economy. Duterte has also shaken up foreign relations, especially with regard to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and relations with the United States. He has ordered American troops (mainly Special Forces and intelligence experts) out of the southern Philippines where the U.S. forces have been helping fight Islamic terrorists since 2002. Duterte also said he would not conduct joint patrols with American forces in the South China Sea and was seeking less expensive weapons suppliers in China and Russia. Duterte also expressed a willingness to negotiate with China regarding Chinese claims on Filipino territory in the South China Sea. So far all this has been talk and not much action.
But as the old truism points out, all politics is local. Filipino voters knew about what happened during the two decades Duterte ran Davao City. Crime rates and Islamic terrorist activity declined considerably. By 2005 Islamic terrorists and other criminals usually avoided the place. Now Duterte is applying his aggressive approach to fighting crime on a nation-wide scale. Since July 1st the few active Islamic terror groups left and the many drug gangs are taking heavy losses and looking for ways to deal with this unprecedented threat. Abu Sayyaf and other ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) type Islamic terrorists always fight back (and lose) but the drug gangs and are expected to be more flexible. In Davao City such compromises seem to have been avoided and threats of increased violence against government leaders was also ineffective. But now there are a lot more enemies a reformer has to deal with.
Duterte has been dealing with assassination threats and other intimidation since the 1990s and apparently knows how to protect himself and his family. As president Duterte’s aggressive anti-crime approach has had immediate results for most Filipinos. Crime is down and it’s the criminals, not the average Filipino, who are now living in fear. That is enormously popular with most voters. Some local and many foreign critics consider these vigilante methods illegal, immoral and ineffective. That remains to be proven. In the meantime these methods have, since July 1st, left over 3,500 known or suspected drug gang members and addicts dead. Most were low level dealers but these are criminals the people see daily and hate the most. As a result a recent opinion poll found 91 percent of Filipinos approved of this new “shoot on sight” approach.
While Duterte encourages Filipinos to personally fight back against crime and corruption, this is also an enormous police operation. Since July 1st over a million homes and workplaces have been visited by police investigating crime. This has resulted in the surrender or capture of over 715,000 drug suspects. But 93 percent of these were drug users and the rest were either distributors (“pushers”) or low level supervisors of distribution. Duterte had said he could arrest nearly two million drug suspects by the end of the year and use information collected from interrogations and searches of so many suspects to identify and prosecute the people running the drug gangs and the corrupt police and politicians who traditionally protected the drug operations. That process has already begun and so far there have been nearly 19,000 police raids resulting in the apprehension of about 19,000 suspects (6 percent being killed in the process). Among the dead were at least 17 corrupt cops working for the drug gangs, sometimes quite openly. Several dozen more senior police and political officials have admitted to drug gang-related corruption and surrendered.
If nothing else Duterte’s methods have gotten the attention of the Islamic terrorists, gangsters and corrupt officials who have long made life miserable for most Filipinos. The president has asked that his anti-drug campaign be extended until mid-2017 so that he can finish the job. Duterte says he will eliminate drug crime (including addiction) and the related corruption. Most Filipinos know that complete eradication is unlikely but that other countries in the region have managed to greatly reduce drug use and criminal activity. Nearby Singapore is the best example but Singapore has never been as ethnically and culturally diverse as the Philippines nor did it have a century’s long tradition of corruption and widespread criminality. Still, most other nations in the region have less crime and drug addiction and most Filipinos see progress as a possibility. Duterte is responding to the widespread feeling that some kind of radical solution is needed. Duterte apparently realizes that he has a short period of time to make some fundamental changes before public enthusiasm wanes and his powerful opponents (major drug gangs and corrupt senior politicians and bureaucrats) get organized. What worked in Davao City may not work on a national scale and that won’t be obvious until late 2017.
Piracy Makes A Comeback
In large part because of increased seaborne attacks by Abu Sayyaf off the southern Philippines Southeast Asia has replaced the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria as the area with the worst piracy problem. In 2015 there were 178 attacks on ships at sea worldwide but none off Somalia and less than a hundred off Nigeria. The most active area was Southeast Asia. So far this year Southeast Asia has accounted for over 35 percent of the hundred or so pirate attacks worldwide.
This shift in pirate activity has not been sudden. Worldwide piracy has been declining since 2012 because most of the Somali pirates were shut down. At that point activity shifted back to the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia and areas near the Malacca Strait. In the first eight months of 2015 some 80 percent of the pirate attacks on the planet occurred in this area. That came to nearly ten attacks a month. Nearly all of them are robberies of the crew and stealing of portable valuables. The crewmen are usually not hurt and based on their experience it appears most of the pirates come from Malaysia and Indonesia and are largely amateurs. There were some professionals in action in 2014. These fellows were able to hijack ships long enough for cargo to be transferred at sea to someone who could resell it and this provided far more money for the pirates than the more common robbery incidents. But those professional pirates are gone, in part because theft that large left a data trail that police and intelligence agencies could pick up and follow. In 2015 Malaysia and Indonesia joined forces to run more helicopter and warship patrols through areas where most of these less costly robbery attacks were taking place. This sort of quick reaction patrol could move in quickly enough to catch pirates before they and their loot could disappear into the one of the many coves or villages that dot the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts. Police also went after the middlemen (“fences”) who buy the valuable (and portable) electronics these “grab and go” pirates prefer. If you find the fence you can often find his suppliers. In any event these robber pirates are more numerous and being amateurs can quickly drop out and, as far as the police are concerned “disappear.” Some of these small time pirates are believed to have been in the business, on and off, for over a decade. The police want to make some arrests and well publicized prosecutions (and convictions) to discourage many of these amateur pirates from returning to robbery.
Then Islamic terrorist pirates became active and did not play by the usual rules. Abu Sayyaf had always engaged in some piracy in the waters between Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. But in 2016 Abu Sayyaf pirates became much more active. By mid-2016 Indonesia and Malaysia were putting a lot of pressure on the Philippines to do something about the Abu Sayyaf pirates based in the Philippines and threatened to curb seaborne trade with the Philippines Abu Sayyaf pirates were not shut down soon. Such a ban would hurt the economy in the southern Philippines. One result of those complaints is Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreeing to allow their air and naval forces to freely enter each other’s territorial waters and air space when pursuing pirates.
September 19, 2016: Abu Sayyaf still holds at least 16 hostages, most of them foreigners (six Indonesians, five Malaysians and one European from the Netherlands). The military offensive continues and the recent release of six Abu Sayyaf hostages is believed to be one reaction to that. Abu Sayyaf is losing people, territory it can freely operate in and some local support.
The NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local
Communist Party) is accusing the military of violating the August 21st ceasefire by arresting veteran NPA rebels. The military pointed out that these were men who surrendered and brought his weapons with them and that this is part of a trend. These surrenders played a role in persuading NPA leaders to consider a peace treaty. This led to peace talks in Norway in August and progress is being made. But some NPA leaders oppose peace talks and cannot accept the fact that many, if not most, veteran NPA members are fed up.
September 17, 2015: Two Filipino Abu Sayyaf captives were released, apparently through the intervention of locals. These two worked for a telephone company and were taken on August 6th. The locals were upset because this kidnapping threatened local cell phone service. Elsewhere in Sulu province Abu Sayyaf released three Indonesian fishermen who had been held for three months. It is unclear if a ransom was paid as Indonesia recently said it would no longer pay ransoms to Abu Sayyaf.
September 16, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released their Norwegian captive to local MILF (or MNLF) militia. Both MNLF and MILF are pro-government groups with members in Sulu Province who have family or other ties to local criminal and Islamic terrorist groups and that is normal in the south. Abu Sayyaf said they released the Norwegian even though they had not received $627,000 of the ransom they were promised. Paying ransom is illegal in the Philippines (because it encourages more kidnappings) but wealthy foreigners can usually find people in the Philippines who can arrange such things especially when foreign captives are being murdered (as Abu Sayyaf has done twice recently) and some foreign captive has been held a long time (as in a year for the Norwegian man). In this case president Duterte admitted that he had promised Norway that he would get the Norwegian Abu Sayyaf captive out alive even if he had to pay a ransom, which he apparently did arrange. At the same time Norway was playing a crucial role in getting peace talks with the NPA rebels going.
September 14, 2016: In the north (Kalinga province) a veteran NPA rebel surrendered and brought his weapons with him. This is part of a trend as hundreds of veteran NPA members have done the same so far in 2016. These surrenders played a role in persuading NPA leaders to consider a peace treaty.
September 10, 2016: In the south (between Sulu province and Sabah) three Filipino fishermen were kidnapped from their fishing trawler (registered in Malaysia) by seven Abu Sayyaf men and apparently taken to Jolo Island. Four other crew members were robbed and several portable items were taken along with the three captives. This is somewhat embarrassing as the Abu Sayyaf boat got past the naval blockade and may have joined one of the Abu Sayyaf groups the military thought they had surrounded on Jolo Island.
September 8, 2016: The Philippines Navy has ordered its first LPD (Landing Platform Dock) amphibious ship, the BRP Tarlac, to move south and join the naval blockade of Sulu province. Tarlac is an 11,500 ton ship that entered service in June. Tarlac can carry two LCU or LCM landing craft in its internal dock and has a landing platform and hanger for two medium helicopters. There are accommodations for 500 troops as well as several dozen vehicles. The ship has a top speed of 30 kilometers an hour and cruising speed of 24. Max endurance is 30 days. The crew of 121 also handles one 76mm gun, two 25mm autocannon for anti-missile defense and firing positions for a dozen or more 12.7mm machine-guns. Tarlac will be the flagship for the blockade and provide the crew with its first opportunity to operate in what has become a combat zone. Tarlac (and a sister ship to arrive in 2017) were built to provide prompt disaster relief, especially after the Typhoons that frequently hit some of the islands every year. Then there is the situation with China in the South China Sea.
September 7, 2016: Since late August China has had an unusual number (at least ten) of coast guard and navy ships off Scarborough Shoal. While claimed by China this shoal is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law it is Filipino.
September 6, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) an army patrol clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf men and killed two of them.
Japan confirmed its offer (earlier in the year) to lease the Philippines five TC-90 aircraft. These are military versions of the popular King Air twin engine civilian transport. Many are used for military purposes (training, transport, electronic warfare, surveillance) and Japan has been using them since the 1970s. Japan changed its laws in 2014 to allow for the export of military equipment (under certain conditions) and is expected to supply the Philippines with a lot more help like this. The TC-90 doubles the range of Filipino coastal surveillance from 300 to 600 kilometers. The cost of the lease was not revealed but it should not be a lot as these PC-10s are used and not equipped with any expensive electronics. King Air 90s sell for less than a million dollars used and cost less than a thousand dollars an hour (maintenance, fuel, spares) to operate. Japan is also sending two used offshore patrol vessels and has already sent ten smaller patrol boats.
September 5, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) the military believes that the additional troops sent south since the August 26th (when the president ordered an all-out efforts to destroy Abu Sayyaf) has made it possible to confine known Abu Sayyaf groups to specific areas. The military also believes the recent Davao City bombing was an effort to divert some of those troops 500 kilometers east to Davao province. Abu Sayyaf has been active there, but not nearly as much as in Sulu province. None of the nearly 10,000 soldiers, marines and police in Sulu were moved east. The trapped Abu Sayyaf groups are believed to have at least 13 hostages with them (five Malaysians, seven Indonesians and one Norwegian). All but the Norwegian were taken from ships in the waters off the southern Philippines. The prisoners are held in three or four groups within areas surrounded by troops. There are up to ten other hostages held by Abu Sayyaf groups that are not surrounded.
September 4, 2016: Malaysia ordered increased naval and air patrols off its Sabah province, which is on the Sulu Sea and the area closest to the Philippines. Because of the intense Filipino military operations against Abu Sayyaf Malaysia fears that some of these Islamic terrorists will flee to Malaysia. 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. In early 2016 Filipino and Malaysian patrol boats began to regularly monitor this patch of sea but not on a 24/7 basis and at night a couple of small speedboats are easy to miss. But now the Sulu Sea is constantly patrolled by Malaysian and Filipino aircraft and warships. This is expensive, but so is continued Abu Sayyaf activity in the area. This was emphasized two days earlier when an Abu Sayyaf bombing in the nearby Filipino city of Davao killed 14 and wounded more than fifty.