December 15, 2016:
The war on Islamic terrorism in the south continues. The government has had 10,000 troops and police carrying out more aggressive operations against Abu Sayyaf for the last six months and that has caused the Islamic terror group a lot of losses. Since July this has cost the Islamic terrorists 119 men (105 killed and 14 arrested) plus several dozen lost to desertions and illness that are a direct result of the constant pressure. The government has offered to hold peace talks with Abu Sayyaf, but on condition that the Islamic terrorist group all kidnapping activity.
Then there is the war on drugs, which continues to enjoy popular support in the Philippines (and condemnation from many outside the country). Police have, since the war on drugs began on June 30th, filled the jails to the breaking point with nearly 40,000 arrested. This effort has killed over 2,000 suspects in the process. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. So far the police have suffered fewer than 80 casualties, mostly wounded but including 17 dead. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over 800,000 people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers.
Opinion polls show that support (63 percent approval) of president Duterte and his war on drugs is virtually unchanged over the last few months. These are very high rating for a Filipino president. But there are uncertainties. For one thing the Filipino justice system, even in normal times, is remarkably inefficient. Many cases take years to reach a conclusion and many suspects cannot post bail and remain in jail while waiting. Wealthy suspects can still afford to delay prosecution or bribe their way out of a conviction. To that end the president is proposing suspending constitutional guarantees of due process. A lot of law-abiding Filipinos oppose this but without judicial reforms (which take a long time) or more prisons (which require money the government has not got) the war on drugs is going to stall because of the problems with prosecuting those arrested. Another side effect of the war on drugs is that criminal gangs, faced with reduced supplies of drugs are turning to other crimes, like kidnapping. That has not replaced the lost drug revenue and does not impact most Filipinos (only those who can pay a ransom) but the gangs will keep seeking new sources of revenue. Finally while the use of vigilantes and a “shoot on sight, shoot to kill” attitude most of the two million drug users in the country are looking for help in quitting but the help isn’t there and never was. The country can’t afford it. This use of widespread violence to halt drug use and dealing has been used before (in China in the 1950s, Afghanistan in the late 1990s and so on) and seems to work for a while but the drug use eventually returns.
The government has agreed to buy weapons from China on terms that include Chinese loans that do not have to be repaid for 25 years. There are no specifics yet and there is no guarantee China will actually make any sales. The Philippines is considering buying more weapons and equipment for the police from China.
President Rodrigo Duterte thought he had persuaded China to allow Filipino fishermen to freely operate around Scarborough Shoal. But Chinese warships now allow Filipino boats to fish near the shoal they continue to prevent Filipino vessels from operating inside the shoal. China has expressed “interest” in granting more access and Duterte is willing to negotiate. Since 2014 China has been increasingly aggressive and effective in blocking Filipino access to Scarborough Shoal. For the moment the Filipino fishermen are happy to be back in the area at all. This is still a problem for Filipinos because 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. China is trying to persuade (with offers of cash, trade and whatever) the Philippines to cooperate and acknowledge Chinese ownership but no permanent agreements have been achieved. All that is obvious is that China is willing to reciprocate when the Filipino leaders says nice things about China and bad things about the United States. Meanwhile the Philippines is technically an American ally and part of an anti-China coalition of nations threatened by Chinese territorial claims. For China this is progress. China takes the long view.
But China is openly boasting of having split the American alliance opposing Chinese claims to the South China Sea. For example the Philippines recently said it would no longer cooperate with the U.S. Navy carrying out patrols through Filipino waters claimed by China. That means American ships or aircraft involved in these patrols cannot operate from Filipino naval or air bases. At the same time Duterte has, under pressure from his own military, backed away from efforts to expel all American troops from the Philippines and cancel many defense related agreements. The Filipino generals and admirals are aware that China is moving more weapons into disputed islands (many manmade recently by China) and appear intent on annexing it all, not matter what sovereignty nearby nations had long enjoyed.
China believes it has obtained the cooperation of Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia. That means ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) which in 2014 showed signs of openly defying China, is no longer a threat to Chinese claims. 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 many members EEZ (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 all attempts to unify and oppose China. Now China has more allies in ASEAN and one less international critic to worry about.
December 12, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released three captives (two Indonesians and a Filipino. It is unclear if any ransom was paid.
December 11, 2016: The government turned down NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) demands that 130 more jailed NPA members be freed before the peace talks resume on December 22nd. The government has about 500 NPA men in prison and has already released (temporarily) 26 NPA men, including two senior leaders. Some NPA leaders are unhappy with how the peace effort is going. The NPA accused 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. Thus it is no surprise that NPA violence has declined in the last six months and in some areas there have been no incidents since the August 21 ceasefire began.
December 10, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) troops clashed with over a hundred Abu Sayyaf gunmen and after a two hour battle killed ten of the Islamic terrorists and wounded at least six. Three soldiers died and 17 were wounded. The Abu Sayyaf force broke contact even though they outnumbered the soldiers. In part that was because the troops quickly received artillery and air support. Armed helicopters are particularly effective in situations like this.
December 9, 2016: In the south (Maguindanao province) pro-government MILF fighters clashed with some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated Islamic terrorists and killed four of them while losing one of their own. The military has been hunting this group of about 30 armed men since November when locals identified these Islamic terrorists as the ones responsible for a growing number of crimes in the area. The dead men were members of the Maute Group faction. This year the government and MILF have concentrated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. Together these two factions have fewer than a hundred active members left. Abu Sayyaf by contrast may still have as many as 300 active members. Maute was founded in 2013 by dissident MILF members who did not want peace with the government and preferred to keep fighting. By 2015 Maute had made little progress and decided to proclaim itself part of ISIL. Since then Maute became more violent and threatening. At the start of 2016 Maute had nearly 200 members. Maute has suffered heavy losses this year in part because MILF got fed up with them and quietly helped the security forces with information on exactly who and where Maute was. Meanwhile Maute found that that behaving like ISIL did not help with recruiting and fundraising but just brought more pressure on them. Since November over 60 Manute members have been killed or captured.
December 8, 2016: In the south, across the Sulu Sea in nearby Malaysia (Sabah) local police managed to ambush a wanted Abu Sayyaf kidnap organizer (Abraham Hamid) and four of his followers. Hamid and two of his men were killed and Malaysian police arrested the other two and freed the man they had recently kidnapped. Hamid has been one of the more successful organizers of kidnapping operations, usually in the waters between the Philippines and Malaysia.
December 7, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) soldiers caught up with a large (50 or more) group of Manute Islamic terrorists and during the firefight one soldier was killed. Security forces have been pursuing this Manute groups since November and on December 1st chased them out of the rural town of Butig which the Islamic terrorists had tried to take and hold for the second time this year. The most recent occupation of Butig caused over 12,000 civilians to flee their homes. The troops also went after the families of Manute leaders, who live in the area, and found evidence that many of these kin were providing support for Manute. Weapons and bomb making equipment was seized and arrests made.
December 6, 2016: Anti-corruption prosecutors accused 25 senior Coast Guard officers (including the head of the Coast Guard) of stealing over a million dollars. The 25 officers were suspended from duty for six months. This was to make it more difficult for them to intimidate witnesses and otherwise interfere with the prosecution.
December 2, 2016: Off the west coast, near Scarborough Shoal, a Chinese coast guard boat rescued two Filipino fishermen whose boat had capsized. The Chinese ship later met up with a Filipino coast guard ship at sea and transferred the two rescued fishermen. This was the first time the two coast guards had cooperated in years.
November 24, 2016: Abu Sayyaf is demanding a $10 million ransom to release a German hostage. The Islamic terrorists attacked a German 10 meter (31 foot) seagoing sailboat on the 6th, killing the woman on board and kidnapping her husband. The couple had been taken by Somali pirates in 2008 and ransomed for nearly a million dollars that was paid by the German government. The two were defiant about their right to sail wherever they wanted, including the waters off the southern Philippines where there have been numerous attacks on ships and kidnappings of crews. This may be a problem because the German government has been trying to get the couple to repay the ransom money spent to get them freed in 2008. The Germans are not inclined to pay much, if anything, to save this guy again. To further complicate matters it is unclear which Abu Sayyaf faction is holding the German. Abu Sayyaf is also holding at least 20 captives, including another Westerner (a Dutch man) plus several Malaysians, two Indonesians and four Filipinos.
November 23, 2016: In the south (Maguindanao province) four BIFF Islamic terrorists were killed in a clash with troops, one of whom died as well.
November 21, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) two soldiers were killed and two wounded when their patrol was ambushed by unidentified Islamic terrorists (either BIFF or Manute).
November 19, 2016: In the south, across the Sulu Sea in nearby Malaysia (Sabah) five Abu Sayyaf men in a speedboat seized a fishing trawler and kidnapped two of the crew (both Indonesians) for ransom.
November 18, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) four soldiers were killed during a clash with Abu Sayyaf gunmen. Elsewhere in the area (Basilan province) another group attacked a defended village and were repulsed but one soldier and one local militiaman were wounded. Meanwhile in nearby Jolo Island troops clashed with a hundred Abu Sayyaf gunmen, killing ten while losing four dead.
November 14, 2016: In the south (North Cotabato province) troops sought to arrest Mohammad Nur Hassan, a wanted BIFF member who was known as their best bomb maker. The troops had received a tip, possibly related to the $24,000 reward for information on Hassan. Rather than surrender Hassan opened fire and was soon shot dead.