Philippines: Getting by With a Little Help from Your Friends


June 23, 2023: Chinese fishing trawlers, often accompanied by Chinese warships, were responsible for a nine percent decline in the annual tonnage of fish caught. Fishing is a large part of the Filipino economy because Filipino fishing boats normally bring in nearly 300,000 tons of fish a year. The Filipino fishing boat operators are angry at their government’s inability to prevent this Chinese behavior. The government has purchased more gunboats for the coast guard and navy but the Chinese already have far more armed ships escorting Chinese fishing boats and interfering with the operation of Filipino trawlers.

While the government is unable to halt the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the battle against domestic communist rebels and Islamic terrorism is another matter. Over the last few years communist rebels (the NPA) and Islamic terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf have suffered heavy losses because of more army and police efforts against them. These groups no longer make the headlines because there are only about a hundred of these rebels still active and their main activity is avoiding detection by the army and police. During the last two years the NPA (New People’s Army) rapidly fell apart after several senior leaders were killed or captured, some of them with over fifty years’ NPA experience. Many were found because of tips from local civilians.

Most of the political violence in the Philippines since World War II has come from communists, who were present but not very active before World War II. The communists became a major part of the armed opposition fighting the brutal 1942-45 Japanese occupation. After independence in 1946, leftist rebels continued fighting, trying to establish a communist dictatorship. That proved difficult to do. A major reorganization took place in the 1960s, resulting in the creation of the NPA in 1969. The new communist rebel organization adopted the Chinese “Maoist” long term strategy. That was not very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they were in charge. Enthusiasm for a "communist solution" went sharply downhill after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist allies between 1989 and 1991. That massive failure of communist states left the NPA much weaker ideologically and vulnerable to subsequent amnesty programs. A decade ago, NPA leaders admitted that they had only a small fraction of their peak (in the 1980s) strength of 26,000 armed members. There were some serious attempts to reverse the decline in popularity. NPA gunmen were instructed to behave better around civilians and the NPA were found giving some civilians, especially health or aid workers, cash compensation of a few hundred dollars each for wounds received during NPA attacks on soldiers or police. The government increased its efforts to provide medical care for such victims of NPA violence, the NPA tried to compete and found they couldn’t afford it. Many NPA members arrested recently were wanted for banditry and similar crimes.

Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is now regularly obtained from local civilians or surrendering NPA members. Because of that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested or killed, even in traditional strongholds like Bukidnon and Negros Occidental provinces.

Philippine Islamic terrorist activity, mainly in the Moslem south, is also rapidly disappearing. The autonomous Moslem regional government plays a role in that, encouraging Moslems to resist, not aid the remaining Islamic terror groups. The government offers amnesty to those who surrender and are not accused of serious crimes like murder or kidnapping. This has played a major role in reducing the number of Islamic terrorists still active to about fifty. Since the autonomous Moslem Bangasamoro area was created in 2014, diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf were treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around though not nearly as actively as they were before 2014. Bangasamoro security forces cooperate with the army to find and shut down these outlaw groups. Since 2014 this joint effort has 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. With only a few dozen members left there are not enough to form active groups for carrying out attacks or kidnapping for ransom.

June 19, 2023: Japan, the United States and the Philippines agreed to increase and coordinate their naval presence in those portions of the South China Sea that fall within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) that is part of the South China Sea area China is claiming. The EEZ extends 360 kilometers from the coast. This means the three allies will patrol the ocean area 360 kilometers from the Philippine islands that face the South China Sea. The Philippines call this area the West Philippine Sea but China now claims it belongs to them. Although the EEZ is recognized by international law, and a treaty that China signed and uses to defend waters off its own coast, China says that does not apply here because all the islets in the South China Sea belong to China and there is no room for negotiation on that point. The new agreement means that Filipino, American and Japanese warships and aircraft will jointly patrol the West Philippine Sea and confront any Chinese forces seeking to prevent anyone else from using its naval forces to intimidate, often physically, non-Chinese economic activity in the West Philippine Sea. Filipino coast guard and navy forces were outnumbered by the Chinese and the new three-nation agreement will deal with the Chinese bullying. The Philippines has also accepted American aid in reopening and expanding air and naval bases that make it easier for allied warplanes and warships to operate near the Philippines. China protested this move because it put American military aircraft within range of Taiwan and in a position to quickly oppose a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The U.S. has mutual defense treaties with Taiwan as well as the Philippines and most American other allies in East Asia, including Thailand.

June 17, 2023: In the south (Agusan del Norte province) soldiers summoned by local villagers confronted a group of armed NPA rebels. After a brief gun battle three NPA gunmen were killed and the rest fled.

June 14, 2023: In the south (Sulu), a 13-year old Egyptian member of Abu Sayyaf surrendered to the army. The adolescent Islamic terrorist and his family came from Egypt as tourists in 2017. He was the youngest and after his mother, father and two elder brothers the family died or were killed during their short careers as Islamic terrorists, the ten-year old son remained working for Abu Sayyaf but eventually saw no future in it. An older (27-year old) Abu Sayyaf member who was planning to surrender allows the 13-year old to join him. Such surrenders by Abu Sayyaf members are increasingly common, especially among the younger Islamic terrorists.

In the south (Mindanao) the current emir (leader) of ISSA (IS Southeast Asia) was killed by soldiers. ISSA is the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise that includes Filipino groups, like Abu Sayyaf, as well as smaller factions in Malaysia and Indonesia.

June 13, 2023: Fifty police officers are accused of conspiring to steal some of a large (nearly a ton) of methamphetamine pills (shabu) seized late in 2022. This much shabu was worth over a hundred million dollars and a large number of corrupt police were planning to steal and resell some of this shabu. This plan involved ten senior police commanders, including two police generals. Such a large operation also attracted the attention of anti-corruption investigators.

June 7, 2023: In the south (Basilan province) soldiers encountered and killed two Abu Sayyaf leaders.

June 5, 2023: The government is purchasing twelve Swedish JAS 39C Gripen jet fighters. The only competition was the American F-16. Sweden offered a more attractive deal, in part because F-16s are more numerous and often cheaper. The F-116 model the Philippines wanted was not cheaper.

May 26, 2023: In the north (Bulacan province) soldiers and police found and arrested two NPA members, one of them a senior leader.




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