Philippines: Dirty Harry Abides


September 3, 2016: Abu Sayyaf took credit for the Davao City terror bombing yesterday and said it was in response to the new offensive against Abu Sayyaf on Jolo Island (where Abu Sayyaf comes from). President Duterte grew up in Davao City and spent most of his political career there. During the nearly two decades Duterte ran Davao City crime rates and Islamic terrorist activity declined considerably. The last time there was an Islamic terror attack in Davao City was 2005 and by then criminals in general usually avoiding the place. Now Duterte is applying his aggressive approach to fighting crime on a nation-wide scale and the few active Islamic terror groups and the many drug gangs are taking heavy losses and looking for ways to deal with this unprecedented threat. Abu Sayyaf and other ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) allied Islamic terrorists always fight back but the drug gangs are expected to be more flexible. Duterte was visiting Davao City when the bomb went off, although he was nowhere near the explosion. Some saw this attack as a warning to the newly elected president. But Duterte has been dealing with assassination threats and other intimidation since the 1990s and knows how to protect himself and his family. So this attack makes Duterte’s aggressive anti-crime approach more popular even though (or perhaps because) some local and many foreign critics consider these “Dirty Harry” methods illegal, immoral and ineffective. These methods have, since July 1 st , left as many as 2,000 known or suspected drug gang members dead. Most were low level dealers but these are the people see, and hate, most. As a result a recent opinion poll found 91 percent of Filipinos approved of this new “shoot on sight” approach. The official numbers are about 900 dead, including fifteen police. At the same time nearly 13,000 drug suspects were arrested. A few of these (12 policemen, ten politicians and 10 military) were also charged with corruption. Many known drug dealers have surrendered to police, seeing that as safer than remaining on the street. If nothing else Duterte’s methods have gotten the attention of the Islamic terrorists, gangsters and corrupt officials who have long made life for most Filipinos miserable.

The Search and Siege On Jolo

Down south the military has been ordered to increase its efforts to find and rescue 23 people (eight Indonesians, eight Filipinos, five Malaysians and two Europeans) held for ransom. Abu Sayyaf is demanding millions for the two from Netherlands and Norway and a few thousand each for the Filipinos. Those from Malaysia and Indonesia are more valuable, but only if a ransom is paid. That is illegal in the Philippines and even Malaysia and Indonesia now go along with that. So there is a sense of urgency to the search because Abu Sayyaf has been murdering (usually by beheading) captives to encourage payment. That has not worked either and has enraged Filipinos and citizens of nations the foreign captives come from. There are only about 400 armed and active Abu Sayyaf members on Jolo but most are locals and have lots of kin and other contacts in the area. This makes them more difficult to find. In the last week Abu Sayyaf murdered one hostage (a Filipino) and threatened to kill more. Over 5,000 civilians have fled their homes in areas where heavy fighting has recently taken place and the locals seem to confirm that Abu Sayyaf is concentrating its remaining manpower and preparing for a major battle.

No More Mister Nice Guy Towards China

On the same day that the bomb went off in Davao City Duterte was nearby giving a speech in which he unexpectedly changed his attitude towards Chinese claims on Filipino territorial waters. This was while Duterte was celebrating the opening of a new cargo container facility near the city. Duterte pointed out that continuing Chinese efforts to create artificial islands on Scarborough Shoal (then build a military base and dare anyone to attack it) threatened maritime trade for the entire region and could start a major war. Until recently Duterte had been taking a more conciliatory approach to the Chinese and apparently that did not work. This comes as a surprise because in early August the Filipino government began warning Filipino fishermen to avoid Scarborough Shoal, for their own safety. This came as a surprise to the fishermen who have long worked the waters around Scarborough Shoal. After all on July 12th the Permanent Court of Arbitration backed the Filipino accusations that China was acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea and that it was illegal for China to build artificial islands and claim them as Chinese territory. This was a major disappointment for China which employed lots of bribes and threats to change minds after the case was filed in 2013. China thought it could organize an effective international opposition to the court. That did not work. China also said it would not recognize the decision by the internationally recognized court and now threatens to use force to protect its claims in the South China Sea. In June, just before Duterte took office, a group of Filipino nationalists tried to plant a Filipino flag on one of islets around Scarborough Shoal but were physically prevented from doing so by Chinese Coast Guard vessels. This is the sort of treatment Filipino fishing boats have been getting for years. The Chinese have been particularly active at this in 2016. Chinese Coast Guard vessels tend to be around Scarborough Shoal nearly all the time and when they are they will violently (without using weapons) force Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing areas. Chinese coast guard ships visit Scarborough Shoal more frequently and apparently with orders to force foreign vessels, especially fishing boats, they encountered away from the area. China was unable to spin all this in their favor and now they have more bad press because of how the Filipino visitors (fishermen or political activists) are mistreated.

Scarborough 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. The Chinese coast guard has a reputation for ignoring international law and illegal activity by Chinese ships. It appears that China encourages its coast guard to do whatever they can get away with to drive foreign fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds that are now claimed by China. President Duterte had initially insisted that he would not go to war (at least not unless America did) with China over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the Philippines is vastly outnumbered by the Chinese military. Duterte said he had asked the Americans if they would help the Philippines fight to retain offshore areas that are legally Filipino and the U.S. told him such active military assistance would only be provided if the Philippines were attacked by China. This is what the Chinese hoped for and why they have always stopped short of actual combat in forcing (or intimidating) other nations out of disputed South China Sea territories. Duterte believed the Philippines should concentrate its increased defense spending on security problems at home, like Islamic terrorism, Moslem separatism and the many private militias maintained in the Philippines, especially in the Moslem south. However the thought of “surrendering” to the Chinese was very unpopular with most Filipinos and this change in approach may just be a reaction to that. In any event the Philippines cannot resist Chinese aggression without the backing of some powerful allies, especially the United States. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam have all pledged to resist Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Philippines is technically part of that unofficial military alliance. A major showdown is coming.

Peace Breaking Out

Meanwhile the government has kept peace negotiations with MILF (Moslem rebels seeking autonomy) and the NPA (leftist rebels). The government believes it can get the autonomy treaty approved by the legislature and MILF is willing to wait until the end of the year (if need be) for that to happen. NPA and the government finally began peace talks (in Norway) on August 20th and progress is being made. Abu Sayyaf, in terms of armed members, is much smaller than MILF or NPA, but have a knack for spectacular (to the news media) actions. These are usually atrocities that involve beheading people and most Filipinos (and the neighbors) want it to stop.

September 2, 2016: In the south (Davao City) Abu Sayyaf set off a bomb in a popular marketplace killing fifteen and wounding over 60.

September 1, 2016: In the capital police revealed that in the last month they had discovered (from interrogations of weapons smugglers and dealers) a plot to assassinate the newly elected president. Key members of this operation were arrested and this particular plot was aborted. But it is also known that major criminal gangs in the Philippines have been offering up to million dollars for the assassination of Duterte and his new chief of the national police. In the past that kind of money would be used to bribe key people but the new president and his police chief are known to be virtually immune to bribes and determined to impose those attitudes on their key subordinates. When faced that sort of thing the usual Plan B for gang lords is intimidation and nothing intimidates better than a few carefully selected assassinations. Duterte had already faced this threat for over a decade in Davao City so he is not going to be an easy target.

August 30, 2016: The government ordered another 2,500 troops (five infantry battalions) to join the 7,500 soldiers and marines already fighting Abu Sayyaf in Sulu province. This comes after a five day offensive against Abu Sayyaf on Jolo Island that left at least 70 Islamic terrorists dead. But the surviving leaders announced that they would keep fighting and never surrender.

August 29, 2016: In the south (Jolo Island, Sulu province) three clashes with Abu Sayyaf gunmen. While the Islamic terrorists lost at least two men the fighting left fifteen soldiers dead and twelve wounded.

August 27, 2016: In the south (Jolo Island) the army carried out several arracks on Abu Sayyaf leaving at least 21 of the Islamic terrorists dead, including one of their leaders.

August 24, 2016: In the south (Jolo Island) police found the head of a man kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf on July 16th. The government ordered an immediate military effort to track down and kill or capture those responsible.

August 21, 2016: In the south (Sarangani province) troops killed three Islamic terrorists belonging to the AKP (Ansar Khilafa Philippines) which is another (rather tiny) Islamic terrorist group that is allied with Abu Sayyaf and ISIL. Another AKP man was captured nearby but the AKP leader who was believed to be with the group escaped.

The government and NPA announced a ceasefire.

August 18, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released the woman (a local school teacher) they had taken captive on the 16th. It was unclear how this was arranged but sometimes Abu Sayyaf will grab someone with powerful local connections that will result in the captive being quickly released. Abu Sayyaf depends on good relations with locals to survive.

Indonesia confirmed that two of the Indonesians held captive by Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines had recently escaped in separate incidents. Both former captives said the Filipino search efforts had put a lot of pressure on their captors and helped provide the opportunities to get away.

August 16, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) four Abu Sayyaf men were killed when they clashed with members of the MNLF (a local pro-government militia) who were helping the military find Abu Sayyaf captives.

August 15, 2016: In the south (Basilan Province) soldiers captured the last Abu Sayyaf camp known to exist in Basilan. The remaining Abu Sayyaf gunmen in Basilan appear to have gone to nearby Jolo Island where Abu Sayyaf is under attack by over 5,000 soldiers and marines. Jolo is the Abu Sayyaf homeland and where most of the foreign hostages are held. The military revealed that they had killed at least 45 Abu Sayyaf fighters in the last six weeks.

August 13, 2016: The Philippines took a bold initiative to deal with the South China Sea dispute. The Philippines has enlisted former (1992-98) Philippine president Fidel Ramos to visit China and arrange formal negotiations between China and the Philippines over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. After several days of discussions in China the Filipino team reports that a proposal to separate discussions over the territorial dispute be kept separate from talks about Chinese investments in the Philippines was listened to but there was no response. China always links economic investments with other objectives and is unlikely to make an exception for the Philippines. This visit was ultimately considered a failure by the Filipino government.


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