In the south 60 days of martial law were declared for all of Mindanao Island (and adjacent smaller islands). This puts and it all includes 22 percent of the Filipino population and a third of the 81 provinces. The largest city in this area is Davao (1.8 million people). President Duterte ran Davao City for two decades so he is familiar with the region. Mindanao is also where most of the Moslems live and long a center of criminal activity like the drug trade and smuggling. That was why the last used of martial law was down south, in 2009 for three weeks in Maguindanao province.
The martial law decision had been a known possibility since Duterte was elected in 2016 and was triggered when an operation in Marawi City (capital of Lanao del Sur province) to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated. Since the 1990s, when Abu Sayyaf was created, Hapilon was known to be a key member. Since 2006 the United States has offered a $5 million reward for Isnilon Hapilon because of his effective efforts running terrorist operations. The security forces had been receiving a lot more tips about Abu Sayyaf activity this year and several them led to a building in Marawi City where the wounded (in a recent battle) Hapilon was recuperating. The military underestimated the number of gunmen (not all of them Abu Sayyaf) available in the city to protect Hapilon. The mid-day raid soon escalated to a larger battle involving hundreds of troops and at least fifty gunmen trying to protect Hapilon. They did this by calling in more gunmen and attacking multiple targets in the city, including city hall, a Catholic church (that was burned down) and a university campus. By nightfall the electricity was cut to most of the city and the Islamic terrorists had taken over a dozen civilians hostage. This appears to be a typical ISIL suicidal last stand. Abu Sayyaf and the other Islamic terror groups have taken heavy losses over the last year, both in terms of manpower, public support and, most importantly cash flow. Even religious fanatics have expenses and these have increased for Abu Sayyaf while income declined. It was time for a bold and desperate move.
Abu Sayyaf had lots of allies in this area. Earlier in the year ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) finally recognized Abu Sayyaf as part of ISIL and was fine with Hapilon as the emir (man in charge). That meant other Islamic terror groups in the area that had pledged allegiance to ISIL were obliged to recognize the authority of (or at least cooperate with) Hapilon. Now hundreds of local Islamic militants had an incentive turn the defense of Hapilon into a major battle.
ISIL has been trying to establish a larger presence in the Philippines for years and by 2016 had over 500 local follower. Most of them belong to Abu Sayyaf but about a hundred are from what is left of the Manute and BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) 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. Abu Sayyaf by contrast may still have as many as 400 active members and more of them moved to Marawi City recently, to protect their emir. BIFF has not been as ruthless and reckless as Manute but both groups have forced the larger Moslem separatist groups MNLF and MILF to crack down on Moslems who work with the Islamic terrorists. Because of that Abu Sayyaf was soon 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 government is hoping for a final (or at least decisive) battle with Abu Sayyaf, BIFF and Manute here. Martial law will enable the security forces to quickly round up the known or suspected supporters of Hapilon. That is important because Hapilon had lots of allies and contacts in the numerous local drug and smuggling gangs.
Even before the Marawi City violence the military had announced that so far in 2017 (through mid-May) at least 81 Abu Sayyaf members had been killed. In that time fifty had surrendered and another 18 captured. Public opinion among southern Moslems had turned against Abu Sayyaf and it was believed that the final battles would be with the most desperate and ruthless members of these groups and that has proved to be the case in Marawi City.
NPA Peace Efforts
The government continued pressuring NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) negotiators that the peace negotiations (resumed this year) will be abandoned is some progress is not made with working out a ceasefire. The government kept the peace negotiations with the NPA going this year despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. Since February the army and police have been ordered to exert maximum pressure on the NPA and that apparently worked because the operations concentrated on the NPA groups known to be hostile to a peace deal. The third round of peace talks took place in early January and made it clear that there was another problem because too many NPA factions refuse to make peace and by the end of January the temporary ceasefire was over because of many attacks by these factions. Those attacks continue. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will resume its efforts to destroy the leftist rebel group. Both the government and the NPA leadership are trying, in different ways, to deal with the uncooperative NPA factions and that is enough to keep the negotiations going.
The Drug War
Since the March 6th resumption of the crackdown on illegal drugs there has been a lot less violence. The revived operations limits the number of police involved to those who have already been screened and known to be uncorrupt. So far the revised anti-drug tactics have led to about 75 percent fewer arrests per week and 84 percent fewer deaths. The deaths, police or criminal, during police raids are now lower than they were before the new president took office. Part of that is due to the fact that so many known drug gang members were arrested or killed during the first seven months of the operation. It will take another month or so to determine if the new approach is continuing to reduce the distribution and use of illegal drugs. The initial campaign certainly reduced crime.
The war on drugs was suspended on January 30th because of an expanding investigation of police corruption, especially of police involved in anti-drug operations. Since the anti-drug campaign began in July 2016 to the end of January 2,512 suspects were killed. During that time there were 51,882 arrests during 42,798 police investigations. 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.
May 19, 2017: President Duterte says China threatened war if the Philippines went ahead with plans to drill for oil in offshore areas that international law recognizes as Filipino but that China claims actually belongs to them. Duterte openly criticizes other nations for not confronting China. All the South China Sea nations facing territorial losses because of Chinese claims have backed down. He points out that even the United States is unwilling to go up against China. Meanwhile the Chinese are openly moving more weapons to bases in the South China Sea as well as their main naval base in southern China (Hainan Island). When pressed a few Chinese officials would admit that in recent talks between Duterte and Chinese leaders it was mentioned that war was a possibility if other nations sought to take possession of Chinese territory. In other words (that non-Chinese can understand). Back off or die.
May 18, 2017: MILF has agreed to combine its 2014 peace deal with the government with the 1996 peace agreement rival MNLF signed with the government. This settles several disagreements the two major Moslem organizations had to confront. The two groups had originally disagreed over who would have what powers under the new autonomy deal. MILF is waiting for the new congress to either pass or reject the peace deal by the end of 2017. This peace deal, if approved by congress, creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. It was not surprising 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. The main problem is that too many Christians do not trust the Moslems to remain at peace and curb violence against Christians in the south. While Moslems are the majority in some parts of the south (mainly the southwest that will become Bangsamoro) Christians are the majority in the southern islands that radical Moslems insist should be under Moslem control and all Christians expelled. Even in Bangsamoro Christians are a large minority.
May 17, 2017: In the north (Quezon) several clashes with NPA rebels left five soldiers dead and two policemen wounded. The NPA suffered casualties but managed to retreat with them, as they try to do all the time to prevent members from being identified.
May 15, 2017: In the south (Zamboanga Sibugay province) soldiers and local civilians on patrol encountered about 30 NPA rebels and after a brief gun battle the rebels fled, leaving two dead behind. The government forces had two civilian volunteers wounded.
May 12, 2017: The Philippines defied China by moving troops and construction equipment to Pagasa, a disputed island in the Spratly’s. China said it disapproved but has not yet made a military move to stop the Filipinos. All this goes back to early 2016 when China was seen making preparations to build an artificial island at Jackson Atoll, install a small military garrison and declare the area part of China. Nearby Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. China has been increasingly belligerent about its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. 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. China is also concerned with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States). Now the Philippines is daring China to make an aggressive move at a time when China is busy with several similar situations from Africa to Korea and the Japanese islands.
May 11, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) the army said that six days of fighting with BIFF had left at least 31 of these Islamic terrorists dead. All this fighting forced over 20,000 local civilians to flee their homes. At the start of the month BIFF was believed to have about 300 active members but because of recent fighting the casualties (dead and wounded) and desertions have reduced that to about 200.
April 28, 2017: The government revealed that they had confirmed the recent death of notorious Abu Sayyaf commander Alhabsy Misaya in Sulu province. Misaya was believed responsible for most of the success Abu Sayyaf had at recent kidnapping for ransom.