Philippines: China Tugs The Leash

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December 11, 2017: Because the leftist (communist) NPA rebels continue fighting and refuses to comply with ceasefire agreements they have been declared a terrorist organization. As a result of this police were ordered to arrest any NPA members out on bail. This comes after the government officially ended the stalled NPA peace talks on November 23 rd . In part that’s because intelligence analysts found some links between NPA factions and some of the Islamic terrorist groups that took heavy losses in the recent five month long Marawi City battle. In the aftermath of that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) defeat there was a lot of new information available on Islamic terrorist and criminal gang activity in the south. This was the result of so many Islamic terrorists dying in the fighting or captured/surrendering and providing even more information. The Americans provided months of aerial electronic surveillance over and around Marawi City and several other areas (Sulu, Basilan) where Islamic terror groups were still active. Intelligence analysts expect to find more links between NPA, drug gangs and the many diminished and disillusioned Islamic terror groups in the south. Another after effect of the Marawi City defeat, and the continuing nationwide campaign against drug gangs, is a lot less crime. Some major clan based outlaw groups in the south took heavy losses and, worst of all, a lot of their secrets became headline news. This has encouraged a lot more southerners to provide tips about illegal activity. This often happens in real time and the security forces show up quickly.

A lot of the political corruption in the south thrived under the protection of clan based militias. The clans were local political dynasties that were traditionally left (by the national government) to do as they pleased on their home territory. That control has been weakened by over a decade of nationwide efforts to reduce corruption, Islamic terrorism and drug use.

Cold War era political rebels like the NPA were found to have more links with the other outlaw groups than expected, given the fact that NPA was always anti-religious and Moslem political and religious groups were militantly anti-communist. By documenting NPA connections to Islamic terror groups NPA loses more of what little political credibility it still has. This is being seen in Europe where several senior NPA leaders have obtained political asylum and openly continue working for the NPA. Some of these leaders are already facing efforts to cancel their asylum.

NPA has suffered heavy losses since 2016 and that led to internal disagreements over strategy. Because of that NPA has split into several factions. There is no one who can accurately represent all of NPA and resume negotiations and continue to work out a peace deal. The government has responded by ordering the security forces to concentrate on NPA and shut them down. That was delayed a bit in mid-2017 to concentrate forces to handle the Marawi City situation. But since October many troops and police assigned to Marawi City have been ordered to remain in the south and help with the effort to hunt down and eliminate the remaining Islamic and communist rebel factions.

One result of the NPA problems is that more NPA members surrendering or deserting the organization. Since mid-2017 many NPA members who surrendered provided information indicating that losses from desertion were more than twice what the government was reporting. In addition there were medical losses (because so many camps had been destroyed) as well as fewer new recruits. Those losses increased since September and judging from the reduced presence of NPA in areas they have long terrorized it is having quite an impact. There are still a few factions willing to fight on but they are facing more armed resistance (especially from local defense groups) and much less popular support. So far this year, and especially since peace talks collapsed on February 4th over 850 NPA rebels have surrendered, been captured, killed or known to have deserted (and are sometimes being sought to major crimes). Less than a third of these losses were killed in combat. Most were surrenders or deserters. Also important is the capture or surrender of nearly 700 firearms and much stockpiled ammo and bomb making materials. In many arears where the NPA has long operated the locals have come to view the NPA as bandits and turned against them.

December 9, 2017: In the south (Sulu) three Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed by an army patrol. This patrol was part of a much larger operation in which eleven army battalions, plus some marines, are searching for the few remaining Abu Sayyaf camps in the south, especially Sulu and Basilan. Abu Sayyaf suffered major losses in 2017 but still holds some hostages (for ransom) in remote camps.

Elsewhere in the south (Maguindanao province) BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) Islamic terrorists took credit for two attacks today that wounded seven soldiers and a policeman. There were two explosions, one caused by a rifle grenade fired from a distance while the other attack was a small roadside bomb.

December 8, 2017: In the south (Zamboanga del Sur province) troops caught up with a group of fleeing NPA rebels and after a three hour gun battle one leftist rebel was dead and three soldiers wounded. The remaining NPA gunmen escaped and the dead rebel and his weapon were seized. Identifying the dead rebel helps identify who he was working with. This pursuit is part of a larger campaign to shut down NPA operations in this area, which is just north of Sulu and Basilan, where Abu Sayyaf is under similar pressure.

December 7, 2017: Taiwanese and Filipino officials signed a new trade and financial investment agreement. This was not unusual as the two neighbors have long traded and worked out differences with negotiations. The next day China reminded the Philippines that anyone receiving aid from China was expected to consult China in certain key matters, like economic relationships with Taiwan (which China considers a renegade province, not an independent nation). In 1975 the Philippines went along with this, as did a lot of countries (including the U.S.) and established diplomatic relations with China while shutting down its embassy in Taiwan. But like many other nations the Philippines was going through the motions and still doing business as usual with Taiwan. But now that the Philippines is buying Chinese weapons (often at a big discount) and accepting gifts (cash, weapons and whatever) from China so the Chinese expect more compliance with the “one China” policy. This is going to cause problems for all concerned because Taiwan has always been considered a friendly neighbor and China more of a threat. For example in 2015 Taiwan and the Philippines established a joint patrol system, especially in some disputed areas and for greater cooperation during emergencies at sea. What really triggered that agreement was a mid-2015 announcement by the Chinese Navy that it would now be carrying out training exercises in the waters (Bashi Channel) between Taiwan and Philippines. This brought Chinese warships close to Taiwanese coastal waters on a regular basis, something that makes many Taiwanese and Filipinos uneasy.

China believed it had succeeded in buying cooperation (or blind obedience in an emergency) from the Philippines but there are still some disagreements over how that will work. The Filipino government is willing to accept all the legal gifts (aid, investments, loans) China offers in return for the Philippines not resisting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. 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). Chinese officials admit that they are determined to get their way in the South China Sea but it is also the case that China prefers to buy what it wants rather than start a war over it. That is an ancient Chinese tradition that is currently giving a lot of popular and official support inside China. The Chinese are finding that bought support is often only rented and the expiration date of that lease is vague.

December 6, 2017: The army confirmed that all seven Maute brothers are dead. These men were the core leadership of the Maute Group. This is a radical MILF faction that opposes the peace treaty MILF negotiated and considers itself part of ISIL. The largest ISIL faction in Marawi City was from the Maute Group who unexpectedly brought in hundreds of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death and triggered an existing plan to gather in Marawi City to inspire local Moslems to rise up and drive out Christians.

The Maute family is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south and the Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and eventually ISIL. The Marawi City battle began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated unexpectedly. As the fighting went on there were efforts to end what quickly turned into dead (literally) end for the ISIL men who showed up. MILF refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. By October the battle was over and many of the troops concentrated in and around Marawi City were being sent to other areas in the south where there was still Islamic terrorist activity. The Maute Group was nearly wiped out in Marawi City and although all seven of the Maute brothers are now dead one other key Maute Group leader, Abu Dar, is still free. Abu Dar belongs to the same tribe (the Maranao) as the Manute clan and could take command of the Maute Group and rebuild it.

November 28, 2017: Some 60 kilometers outside the capital police clashed with a large group of armed NPA rebels and killed fifteen of them. Five soldiers were wounded. These NPA were planning large attacks in the capital as a response to the government ending the peace talks on the 23rd.

November 21, 2017: In the south (Sulu) the navy, acting on a tip, caught and arrested six Abu Sayyaf pirates. Several of the arrested already had arrest warrants issued for them. The sailors also captured two of the speed boats these pirates used as well as an M16 and ammo. The navy turned the six over to the police.

 

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