Philippines: New Opportunities


February 15, 2017: The war on drugs has been suspended so that the suddenly larger (or at least more visible) issue of police corruption can be addressed. While recent opinion surveys showed 85 percent of Filipinos approve of the violent crackdown on illegal drugs at the same time 78 percent were fearful they, or someone they know, may become a victim of the increased violence. This unease was based on the growing instances of corrupt cops using their new “license to kill” for personal gain. The fear became headline news when a group of corrupt cops were arrested in January for kidnapping and murdering a wealthy South Korean.

President Rodrigo Duterte took officer in mid-2016 and admitted that he got elected because he had demonstrated as a mayor of a large city that radical solutions can work. Duterte said he would 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 related 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. He apparently sees the recent police corruption revelations as an opportunity. Catching and punishing corrupt cops is popular but the corruption is a persistent and difficult problem to eliminate. For example back in 2008 the army and national police were cracking down on corruption and sloppiness. A lot more readiness inspections, and investigations were taking place. Dozens of corrupt police were being fired each month and soldiers of all ranks were charged with corruption or incompetence. That crackdown did not gain the expected momentum and only reduced the problems a bit. Despite that the anti-corruption investigations continued and even increased when the new president took power in mid-2016. Reformers have pushed for a massive and sustained effort and now they may have some momentum.

There are some underlying problems. The Philippines has only been united for a few centuries and always suffered from high levels of corruption. Currently the Philippines is not rated as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. Instead the Philippines is seen as near the middle (101 out of 176 countries) for 2016. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Filipino score is 31 compared to 40 for China, 40 for India, 33 for Vietnam, 72 for Japan, 61 for Taiwan, 37 for Indonesia, 49 for Malaysia, 79 for Australia, 84 for Singapore, 53 for South Korea, 45 for South Africa, 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 48 for Jordan, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan. 32 for Pakistan, 29 for Russia, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.

The problem with reducing corruption is that it takes a lot longer than going after the drug trade and related criminal organizations. But if a lot more progress can be made in reducing corruption in the security services that would make it a much more difficult for corrupt politicians and judges to survive. Already the publicity the recent South Korean victim has received has resulted in hundreds of new tips about the activities of corrupt cops and many of the informants are willing to provide details that can lead to quick arrests.

Islamic Terrorism

In the southeast (Sulu and Basilan) the search continues for Abu Sayyaf factions that are holding 28 kidnapping victims (a German, five Malaysians, seven Indonesians and six Vietnamese and nine Filipinos) for ransom. The search down there has been more energetic in the last year because of Abu Sayyaf has turned to piracy and kidnapping crews from ships belonging to neighboring countries. This has brought demands that this sort of thing cease or else there would be economic repercussions (there is a lot of trade between southern Philippines and neighboring nations). That got the attention of many Moslem leaders in the south. There were other incentives to help destroy Abu Sayyaf. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is trying to establish a larger presence in the Philippines and so far has over 500 local followers, Most of them belong to Abu Sayyaf but about a hundred are from what is left of the Manute and BIFF groups. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have cooperated (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 400 active members. Manute 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 Manute became more violent and threatening. At the start of 2016 Maute had nearly 200 members. Manute 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 Manute was. Meanwhile Manute found that that behaving like ISIL did not help with recruiting and fundraising but just brought more pressure on them. Since November over 70 Manute members have been killed or captured. BIFF has tried to keep up but has not been as ruthless and reckless as Manute. The actions of Manute forced the larger Moslem separatist groups MNLF and MILF to crack down on Moslems who work with the Islamic terrorists. Now Abu Sayyaf is considered unworthy of local support by the Moslem community and the Abu Sayyaf leaders know that is the worst thing that could happen to them.

The Incredible Shrinking Communist Threat

Until February 4th the government kept the peace negotiations with the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) going despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. The third round of talks took place in early January and were not a success. The problem is that too many NPA factions refuse to make peace and by the end of January the ceasefire was over because of many attacks by these factions. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will resume its efforts to destroy the leftist rebel group. 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 2016 and progress was made. But some NPA leaders oppose peace talks and cannot accept the fact that many, if not most, veteran NPA members are fed up with their career of banditry. Thus it is no surprise that NPA violence declined since the ceasefire began and in some areas there have been no incidents since the August 21 ceasefire began. But for a minority of NPA members peace is not seen as a solution.

The China Hustle

China continues to insist the South China Sea areas it has seized from the Philippines and others now belong to China and it is best to take whatever China offers than to try and fight back. Most Filipinos are willing to fight but president Duterte has gotten $33 billion in loan or aid pledges from China because of vague assurances that he would expel the Americans and support Chinese claims. The Chinese are becoming reluctant to deliver any of this promised aid because of the growing fear that Duterte is playing them and dares not go against the will of his people and military advisors. The poll numbers seem to show Filipinos appreciate what’s going on here even if a lot of foreign critics don’t. So despite all the nice things Duterte says to China his Defense Minister openly denounces the continued Chinese efforts to build artificial islands in Filipino waters so China can claim the new islands as part of China. Duterte is seen as trying to avoid having a war between China and the United States take place so close to the Philippines. Filipino military leaders point out that the U.S. would operate at a disadvantage against Chinese military moves without access to some Filipino bases and that the Philippines would probably be attacked by China no matter what. That happened to many “neutral” countries during World War II and for Chinese territorial expansion to work the Philippines is an obstacle with or without Americans involved. The eventual annexation of the Philippines by China is openly discussed in Chinese media. Despite all this Duterte believes China will pay well for a few kind words. That’s how Chinese diplomacy has been conducted since the 1990s.

February 14, 2017: Abu Sayyaf released a video threatening to kill a German hostage if a ransom of $600,000 were not paid by the 26th. That’s about 90 percent less than is usually demanded for foreigners but Abu Sayyaf is desperate and this particular German has not got a lot of popular support back in Germany (that’s another story).

February 13, 2017: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) troops clashed with NPA rebels and killed four of them and captured eight.

In the south (Sarangani province) soldiers captured an NPA rebel.

February 9, 2017: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province) police killed Ninok Sappari, the wanted Abu Sayyaf leader of a kidnapping operation. Sappari and an associate were apparently at a beach resort looking for a foreign visitor they could kidnap. Arrests like this are reducing the Abu Sayyaf ability to raise cash.

February 7, 2017: In the south (Sulu Island) marines encountered a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen and killed eight and captured another during a fire fight and pursuit.

In the central Philippines (Capiz province) soldiers searching for NPA rebels reported to be setting up roadside bombs and mines were ambushed by the rebels, losing one dead and two wounded. The leftist rebels escaped.

February 1, 2017: In the south (Davao Oriental province) one soldier was killed and another wounded during a clash with NPA rebels. Today marked the end of an NPA ceasefire that began in August 2016.

January 31, 2017: In the south (Sulu Island) several clashes with Abu Sayyaf left five of the Islamic terrorists dead and seven wounded. Two soldiers were also wounded. The troops were looking for an Abu Sayyaf faction led by Alhabsy Misaya. This faction is believed to be holding many of the kidnapping victims Abu Sayyaf holds for ransom.

January 30, 2017: Because of a growing investigation of police corruption, especially by police involved in anti-drug operations, the government has temporarily halted its crackdown on illegal drugs. Since the anti-drug campaign began in July 2016 some 2,600 suspects have been killed. During that time there were 53,000 arrests and some seven million locations were searched. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted arrest or searches but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over 1.1 million people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly all were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers. So far the police and military have suffered fewer than 120 casualties, mostly wounded but including 38 dead.

January 29, 2017: In the south (Sulu, Basilan, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) troops went looking for Abu Sayyaf and Manute Islamic terrorists over the last few days. Aerial reconnaissance spotted the enemy in several places and airstrikes and artillery fire were often used against them initially until troops could reach the location. Troops discovered that fifteen Abu Sayyaf and Manute members were killed. One of the dead was apparently Mohisen, a veteran Indonesian Islamic terrorist. The leader of the local Abu Sayyaf group was apparently wounded as were several of the other Islamic terrorists who escaped the air and ground search.

The airstrikes were carried out by the recently arrived FA-50 jets on their first combat mission. In late 2013 the government ordered a dozen of these advanced jet trainers from South Korea. These arrived recently configured to serve as fighters or ground attack aircraft.

January 23, 2017: The government agreed to not upgrade any of its military installations in the South China Sea. This is not a permanent thing and apparently in response to China committing to $3.7 billion for projects to address “poverty reduction” in the Philippines. China has pledged more deals like this, in return for some good will, or whatever, from the Philippines. At the same both Chinese and Filipino officials have to keep in mind that opinion polls in Philippines continue to show over 80 percent of the population backs opposition to Chinese claims in the South China Sea. China takes things like this as a victory and because China has managed to buy similar victories all over the region, and the world, the cumulative effort pays off.

January 21, 2017: In the south (North Cotabato province) an NPA rebel died and several were wounded during an effort to ambush soldiers looking for them. Eight soldiers were killed and the search for leftist rebels responsible continued. NPA claimed the troops were violating the NPA ceasefire by entering territory claimed by the NPA. The government never agreed with those NPA control claims and the troops were answering calls for help from local villagers, who were being threatened by local NPA gunmen.

January 18, 2017: The government admitted that corrupt police had been responsible for the recent kidnapping and murder of Ji Ick Joo a South Korean businessman operating in the Philippines. The dirty cops killed their victim rather than keep him alive and extorted $140,000 from his family before police investigators discovered corrupt police were responsible. Soon this investigation revealed far more police corruption related to the anti-drug effort.


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