Philippines: All Quiet On The South China Sea Front


November 2, 2022: A particularly violent tropical cyclone (0r typhoon) passed through the country over the last week, leaving over a hundred dead among more than a million people who experienced the impact of the storm. The Philippines is hit with about twenty of these storms a year, some of them with winds as high as 300 kilometers (190 miles) an hour. Pacific typhoons are more powerful and destructive than the hurricanes that form in the Atlantic. The armed forces must halt training or counter-terror operations to assist with relief efforts. Leftist rebels and Islamic terrorists also suffer damage to their remote bases, although in some area these groups will continue attacking soldiers and civilians. These storms cause far more death and destruction than the rebels and Islamic terrorists. The recent storm saw leftist NPP rebels make several attacks on soldiers assisting in the relief effort.

The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, most of them tiny. These include the Spratly Islands, which are an important part of the South China Sea areas that China considers its territorial waters. The Philippines has military detachments on nine of the disputed islands or reefs. These are part of an effort to oppose the illegal Chinese claims. In response China has put garrisons on eight islands, some of them created by dredging up sand at a reef and creating an artificial island. These eight islands, in contrast to those occupied by Filipinos, are covered with new construction, including radars, missiles (anti-air and anti-ship) as well as some cannons. There are airstrips and hangars.

While the many Philippine islands protect the South China Sea from the most powerful storms, the South China Sea is one of those ocean areas where, because of its shallow waters, less powerful storms are formed. The occupied Chinese islands do not feature any high ground and are subject to flooding when there is a storm strong enough to cause a surge of water. The facilities on these islands are built to deal with this. The new structures are sturdy and contain enough multi-story buildings to shelter the garrison. Any aircraft on islands have to be flown off before the storm hits but some supply or warships docked at the islands are able to ride out storms when it’s less dangerous than trying to outrun or outmaneuver the storm at sea.

China has built several supply ships specifically for keeping these islands supplied with food, fuel, fresh water and other necessities. The eight island bases are an expensive investment to assert ownership of areas that belong to the Philippines.

Rebels And Islamic Terrorists Fade

The NPA has been suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This was causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk. The NPA has been more successful at becoming gangsters to survive than have religion-based terror groups.

Soldiers have largely eliminated Abu Sayyaf, BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) rebels and several smaller Islamic terrorist groups. These groups have not disappeared, but have become much less active because of declining membership. The government is trying, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various Fronts (groups of NPA members) are split on which peace terms are acceptable and most are continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money and begin to suffer from desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps or weapons storage sites is considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that the NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal more difficult. Meanwhile the NPA has maintained its status as a major source of criminal (as opposed to Islamic terrorist) activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines.

A major blow to the NPA was that Islamic terrorist and Moslem separatist violence in the south sharply declined after the 2014 vote by the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines to establish an autonomous Moslem region. This consisted of the southwest coast of the large southern island Mindanao and the string of smaller islands, mainly Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. The new Moslem entity was called Bangsamoro, and provided more autonomy and responsibility. That meant the Moslems down there were responsible for maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangsamoro.

Bangsamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao and even more Christian neighbors of those Moslems. Filipino Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 95 million Christians and 12 million Moslems. Christian Filipinos are generally better organized, more industrious and economically successful. Moslem separatists believed they should run Mindanao even if they were the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the national government were willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines were not. A compromise was finally negotiated and approved by all voters. Diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangsamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around but not nearly as active as they were before 2014. Most of the Army JTFs (Joint Task Force) units are now in Bangsamoro where they concentrate, with the help of local civilians and security forces, on eliminating the few remaining Islamic terrorists and communist NPA rebels.

Islamic terrorists in the south are still active, but often feuding with each other or devoting most of their energy to remaining intact at all. Remnants of several ISIL factions have been trying to survive in this area since 2017. The most active has been DITG (Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group) and has few personnel left. There have been a few DITG bombings since 2019, usually against military convoys, camps or economic targets. In mid-2021 one the last known DITG bomb-builders was killed and the army found evidence that there were more armed DITG members around than previously believed. On the plus side all or most of them had coalesced into one group led by Abu Zacharia, a veteran DITG leader. This faction was first identified and encountered in 2021 and several times since then. The troops are trying to force the Islamic terrorists into a fight, or a surrender. DITG survived four years of constant army patrols and civilians who phone in tips as well as those who provide just “terrorists have been here” messages. While there is cell phone coverage in 95 percent of the populated areas there are still many rural areas where people own cell phones but have to travel to a town or city to use them. Desperate Islamic terrorists will destroy existing cell towers in areas where they are being pursued. What has hurt the Islamic terrorists most is that more rural Moslems openly provide information and the security forces have lists of towns and villages where there are informants. The names of informants are often not provided but local soldiers and police know that just asking local leaders or merchants will get them to someone who has timely information to share. DITG has been trying to regroup, rebuild and move forward with more devastating attacks. Their attacks since 2019 caused little damage and few casualties. DITG was never officially acknowledged by ISIL and is composed of the survivors of the Maute Group, which was largely wiped out in 2017 when they tried to take over the nearby city of Marawi. That failed in a spectacular fashion, which is one reason ISIL does not want to be associated with this group.

The government is implementing Starlink satellite Internet/cell phone service in many remote areas. One Starlink terminal (a small dish and a special modem to link the satellites to a PC) can be used to provide cell phone service to a larger area by acting as the center of a local network of cell phone towers that provide cell phone service via the Internet.

Shutting Down Chinese Gangsters

Chinese run online gambling companies are legal in the Philippines but Chinese gangsters operate many illegally. This has led to support for outlawing the lucrative online gambling industry. Chinese gangsters have become more of a problem that came with increased Chinese investment. Over two thousand illegal aliens, most of them Chinese, are arrested each year in the capital alone. Most of those arrested were participating in the growing Internet based criminal activities. Currently, a major crackdown on Chinese criminal organizations has led to hundreds of arrests with many of the Chinese being deported because they are in the country on tourist visas.

After 2008 the Philippines slowly became a hotspot for computer hacking groups, and for nearly a decade the computer crime gangs were able to survive by bribing the right officials. Only when the cybercrime involved Islamic terrorism did the bribes not work. In 2016 the government legalized online gambling operations. These were to be regulated and taxed. Filipinos were forbidden to use the new online gaming sites because popular opinion in the country was that the online gambling sites were addictive and sometimes rigged. There was also an effort to eliminate a lot of the bribery that caused things like online gambling to become more of a problem than economic benefit. All this was complicated by new (since 2016) Chinese investment activity, which was part of a government effort to boost the economy. While the government was also at odds with China over illegal South China Sea claims, the Chinese were using large investments to reduce the popular hostility to what was going on in the South China Sea. The Chinese investments came with the usual demands that more Chinese be allowed to work in the Philippines. In return more Filipinos would be allowed to work in China. In 2016 the Filipino police were ordered by the new president (Rodrigo Duterte) to aggressively go after corruption and criminal activity. This was soon applied to the online gambling business, which were dominated by Chinese gangs. In addition to corrupting legal online gaming operations, the new flood of Chinese gangsters led to the establishment of illegal online gaming operations. All this Chinese gangster activity led to more arrests and prosecutions. The Chinese government often cooperates because many of these gangsters are moving to the Philippines to escape more intense police pressure in China. In foreign countries it was often possible to exploit the legal system and extradition treaties to avoid being sent back to China to face even more serious criminal charges. A growing number of Chinese arrests are the result of information provided by the American FBI, which had been investigating international computer and phone fraud and the hackers behind it. China has also provided information about Internet based criminals preying on individuals and businesses in China. In 2019 thousands of illegal aliens were arrested in the Philippines, most of them Chinese. For all of 2018 only 500 illegal aliens were arrested. In 2019 nearly two million Chinese traveled to the Philippines, most of them tourists. Tourism has always been good for the economy but the growing number of Chinese tourists’ is accompanied by more Chinese gangsters looking for a safer place to work and skilled at corrupting local officials.

One side effect of this crackdown was China issuing a warning to Chinese tourists and business travelers to stay away from the Philippines because of the risk to all Chinese living or working there. While this keeps Chinese tourists away, the police report that Chinese gangsters often come to the Philippines as tourists.

October 29, 2022: In the south (Negros Oriental province) soldiers, acting on civilian complaint about NPA rebels extorting locals, tracked down and confronted a group of armed NPA rebels. There was a 30-minute gun battle. The rebels managed to break contact and get away but the troops kept tracking them and clashed again and another half hour of fighting saw one rebel killed and one or more apparently wounded. The rebels again escaped but left behind weapons and backpacks. There are two NPA groups or “Fronts” in the province and both have suffered heavy losses since 2019 and gained few new recruits.

October 27, 2022: In the north (Abra province) NPA rebels ambushed four soldiers who were driving to a storm relief assignment. Two soldiers were killed and one wounded.

October 24, 2022: In the south (Lanao del Norte province) s dead man was found near a downed NGCP (National Grid Corporation of the Philippines) electricity transmission tower. It took 36 hours to restore service areas served by electricity provided by that tower. A bomb had been used to bring down the tower and three days earlier and it took time for the dead man to be identified as a member of the Islamic terrorist Maute Group, which now prefers to be called DITG Members of this group tend to fight to the death if trapped, rather than even consider surrender. The dead man near the tower apparently died as a result of the explosion. He was too close when the bomb went off.

October 20, 2022: The government reported that they have managed to shut down 214 illegal Chinese online gambling operations and arrested about 400 Chinese gangsters involved with crimes against Chinese, often the country illegally, working for the online gambling operations.

October 11, 2022: In the south (Maguindanao province) soldiers found a BIFF safehouse thanks to a tip from a local civilian. There were no BIFF men resent but the soldiers found several bombs and rifles along with ammunition. The bombs are normally used for attacks on army vehicles or foot patrols. BIFF has fewer members now and there have been few violent encounters with BIFF forces in the last year, although there was some violence between two BIFF factions who carried out several attacks against each other. The BIFF factions involved are from different clans and violent feuds between clans has been common in the Moslem south for centuries. The commanders of the two clans are not only from different clans but also have grudges against each other. Since 2021 most of the BIFF losses have been from BIFF gunmen surrendering. BIFF personnel who surrender or turn themselves in with their weapons and tell interrogators what they know can get amnesty. There are less than a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they have remained active for so long. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. Just surviving has become a full-time BIFF activity, which results in many weapons being stashed in rural areas.

October 10, 2022: In the south (Negros Occidental province) soldiers clashed with a group of NPA rebels and after a brief gun battle the rebels fled, except for one that was dead and quickly identified as Romeo Nanta, the commander of NPA gunmen on Negros Island, which contains two provinces (Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental).

October 6, 2022: In the south (Negros Occidental province) soldiers advised over a thousand civilians leave their homes temporarily until the current fighting with NPA rebels in the area ended. The armed clashes have been frequent and unpredictable as military patrols close in on several NPA groups in the area. The violence went on for another two days. NPA will often try to hide among civilians.




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