President Dutertes’ “war on drugs” had a secret component which is now becoming visible. Early on Duterte ordered unpublicized investigations of senior police officials because it was widely believed that there were many senior police commanders who worked for the drug gangs and were discrete enough to avoid any of the usual anti-corruption screening efforts. Duterte had detected the presence of high-level “untouchables” during the 22 years he was the mayor of Davao City in the southeast. The latest revelations include the arrest of four police colonels and two majors as well as going public with details of how corrupt officials tried to frame a Marine Corps colonel who was secretly working undercover to gather evidence on high-level corruption. This secret and persistent approach to revealing and eliminating corruption, especially crooked senior police and civilian officials is making Duterte a lot of enemies in the government. It is anti-corruption efforts like this mean that Duterte remains popular. His current approval rating is 78 percent. That is down from 84 percent shortly after he took office in 2016. Approval peaked at 85 percent in late 2016 and hit a low of 75 percent earlier this year. There are many foreign critics of the Duterte war on drugs but for the people most affected by it there is approval.
President Duterte seems to agree with the growing number of Filipinos who believe that trying to work out a deal with China over Chinese claims on Filipino territory is not working. China talks a lot about economic benefits for the Philippines but has made it clear so far that this is mostly talk and very little action. Worse, China has demonstrated that it is relentless in going after what it wants. And when China gets what it wants, it soon wants more.
October 8, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province), soldiers encountered a group of armed BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) Islamic terrorists. There was a brief gun battle and then the BIFF men fled, leaving four rifles and some other gear behind. This indicates that some of the BIFF men were wounded. BIFF survived a three month effort (that ended in early September) to eliminate their presence in Mindanao (where most BIFF members are). Over a hundred BIFF men were known dead and it is not yet known how many died of wounds or deserted. The army has found several BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and have set no end date on the current campaign. The 6th Infantry Division, which is supplying most of the troops, were able to rotate units in and out of the area for months. The object was to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island (including Maguindanao province) and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicate that this was a possibility. But the reality is the BIFF are hardcore and consider themselves a branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). BIFF has become a magnet for many Filipino Moslems who are unhappy with the Bangsamoro agreement and believe it does not go far enough (ISIL believes that all Filipinos should be Moslems).
October 6, 2018: U.S., Filipino and Japanese marines conducted a joint training exercise in the Philippines. Japan recently revived its special naval infantry force, which disappeared at the end of World War II. The new version is based on the American model as is that of the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea.
The Filipino army declared an end to its war with MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). Actually, there was a peace deal with MILF in 2012 that ended fifteen years of fighting with MILF. That violence left over 120,000 dead (mostly Moslems in the south). In 2012 MILF had about 10,000 armed followers and now has somewhat fewer. This is not the first time a peace deal was made. An earlier one, in 1989, was signed and many Islamic separatists disarmed. But many more radical separatists did not, formed MILF and kept fighting. Now even many MILF members are tired with all the fighting and few results.
September 15, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released three Indonesian fishermen they had kidnapped in January 2017. Two Indonesian sailors (taken four days ago) are still being held by Abu Sayyaf, the last of 36 Indonesians kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf since 2016. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have set up a joint anti-piracy operation in the Sulu Sea where most of these kidnappings take place. This has reduced the number of successful kidnappings, which has hurt Abu Sayyaf financially because the Islamic terror group has come to depend on ransoms to finance its operations. At least one Abu Sayyaf leader is known to be forming a new kidnapping operation. There has not been a lot of Abu Sayyaf kidnapping success in the last two years because the Filipino military and the joint anti-piracy patrol have made difficult for inexperienced kidnappers to succeed. But the new group, led by Indang Susukan, is considered a serious threat. Susukan was thought to be dead, but his body was never found and now we know why.
In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) marines clashed with NPA rebels after responding to a tip from locals. One marine was killed and one wounded before the NPA men fled. The NPA continues to lose popular support, sources of income and active members. Apparently, NPA loses more armed members to combat and desertion than it can replace by recruitment. NPA is a creation of the Filipino Communist Party which is still active in urban areas and academic circles. That does not provide many new recruits or much financial aid. Meanwhile support from “the people” continues to dwindle as the rural Filipinos NPA gunmen operate near see the communist rebels as gangsters not liberators.
September 14, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) an army patrol encountered about a hundred Abu Sayyaf men and during a brief battle seven Islamic terrorists were killed and six wounded and captured. The army suffered seventeen wounded, many by grenade fragments. More of the Abu Sayyaf men may have been wounded before they broke into smaller groups and fled into the bush. One of the dead Islamic terrorists was a known Abu Sayyaf leader.
September 13, 2018: In the south (Davao Oriental province) two separate clashes with NPA rebels left two rebels and one soldier dead. Four soldiers were wounded. Clashes like this disrupt NPA operations and often lead to the discovery of remote NPA camps that can be destroyed (by ground troops, artillery or airstrikes).
September 12, 2018: The Philippines is negotiating a treaty that could allow China to share, with the Philippines, oil and natural gas revenue from portions of the South China Sea where China claims control of areas that are Filipino according to current international agreements. This deal is unpopular with a lot of Filipinos as well as with neighboring countries also being pressured by China. Malaysian leaders warn that Chinese offers of massive investments come with too many strings and have proved to be more about enriching China and not the country receiving these investments. Any agreement with China on who gets what in Filipino parts of the South China Sea will have to be approved by the Filipino legislature and that is where the Chinese will probably encounter the most opposition. These negotiations ultimately failed.