Philippines: Justified

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May 29, 2019: President Duterte won another election, even if he was not on the ballot. The final results of the May 13 national elections are in and, as expected pro- Duterte candidates replaced a lot of anti-Duterte legislators. Pro-Duterte politicians now have majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many Duterte critics are gone. Duterte continues to have high opinion poll ratings because he promised economic growth and less crime. He has delivered on both counts and is also making visible progress in reducing corruption.

President Duterte was elected in 2016 because his previous experience as a big city mayor showed that he might actually be able to carry out his campaign promises to reduce corruption and drug-related crime nationwide. According to recent polls, Duterte still has the highest approval and trust ratings of any Filipino president, especially this late in his term of office. Many other Filipino presidents got elected on the basis of promises they could not or would not keep. After two or three years such failure to perform was reflected in approval polls.

Duterte used vigilante tactics to reduce the ability of drug gangs to terrorize the areas where they operated and openly bribed police and other officials to cooperate. This is what most Filipinos disliked most about the illegal drugs, in addition to children or kin turning themselves into anti-social addicts. After three years most Filipinos still rate Duterte as effective and able to deliver on campaign promises. This was particularly true with the other campaign promise; to reduce corruption. The high levels of corruption make it easier for drug gangs to operate and Duterte went after anyone found to be corrupt for whatever reason. This included longtime friends and political allies as well as senior police commanders. The success of these tactics showed up in the latest international corruption surveys. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines has the most problems with corruption and Duterte demonstrated that the Filipino situation was not hopeless.

Grinding Down The Islamic Terrorists

Ground, air and naval forces are making life more difficult for the Islamic terrorists still operating in the south (especially Sulu and Basilan provinces). Over the last three years, these operations have reduced the number of Islamic terrorists down there and with that the amount of violence. Abu Sayyaf has been unable to pull off any pirate attacks in 2019 and the army is searching for the last few hostages held for ransom. While Abu Sayyaf has been unable to carry out pirate attacks they are still able to smuggle people in and out of Indonesia and Malaysia via the Sulu Sea. This has enabled Abu Sayyaf to bring in ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) veterans to reinforce the depleted local supply of Islamic terrorists. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia cooperate in counter-terrorism matters, including coordinating naval and air patrols in the Sulu Sea.

The BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) was approved by voting earlier in 2019 and the interim leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, was sworn in. Ebrahim will be in charge until elections are held in 2022. Since February, armed members of MILF (which negotiated the BARMM deal) have been responsible for local security although the Filipino armed forces still handle most of the counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Abu Sayyaf and BIFF. Ebrahim has 80 members of the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) to assist in running BARMM until the first elected officials are sworn in. BARMM consists of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces, as well as the cities of Marawi, Lamitan, Cotabato and 63 villages of North Cotabato province. The city of Cotabato will be the capital.

Most of the remaining Islamic terrorists down south are hostile to BARMM and the feeling is mutual. The Islamic terrorists want a BARMM that is an independent country run as a religious dictatorship. Most BARMM residents prefer democracy and are willing to fight, or at least inform on, Islamic terrorists to help make BARMM work. BARMM residents also want the counter-terror forces gone but accept that this will not happen until Islamic terrorist numbers are reduced to such a small number (perhaps under a hundred) that BARMM security forces can realistically handle the problem. BARMM police will continue working with the military (which BARMM will not have) to monitor Islamic terrorist activity in nearby Moslem nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. At the moment BARMM is still considered something of a refuge for foreign Islamic terrorists. That has to change because if it doesn’t the people of BARMM will suffer the most from Islamic terrorist violence.

May 25, 2019: In the south (Sula province), a large (about 30 gunmen) group of Abu Sayyaf attacked soldiers helping local villagers. The attack was repulsed but not before eight were killed and 14 wounded. Abu Sayyaf lost six dead and seven wounded before they withdrew. The 30-minute firefight killed an infant and a 12 year old child. Five soldiers and two civilians were wounded.

May 23, 2019: In South Korea, the first of two new Filipino frigates was launched. In late 2016 the Philippines ordered two 2,600 ton frigates for $169 million each. These two ships will be smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate. The first Filipino one should be in service by 2020.

May 21, 2019: Final election results of the May 13 national elections are in and president Duterte, as predicted in the opinion surveys, won even though he was not on the ballot.

May 20, 2019: In the South China Sea, an American destroyer conducted a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) near Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) is Filipino. This is the second South China Sea FONOP for the Americans this month. In both cases, China issued warnings and accused the Americans of troublemaking. In addition to FONOPs, American, Filipino, Japanese, Australian, Indian and South Korean naval forces held training exercises in the South China Sea recently. There has been a lot more such troublemaking in 2019. There were only five American South China Sea FONOPs in 2018. Since 2015, when Chinese South China Sea claims became a major issue, the Americans have carried out 18 FONOPS there. By early 2019 China had moved more radars and EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment and guided missiles to the Paracel islands. China also declared once more that the Paracels were part of China and China would control its territorial waters. That last 2018 FONOP was near several of the Chinese occupied islands in the Paracels. These islands had long belonged to (and been occupied) by Vietnamese. China took the Paracels by force in the 1970s. In 2012 one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island) was declared the center of Sansha, a new Chinese municipality (city). Sansha/Woody Island is the largest of the Paracels with the being dozens of smaller bits of land (some of them shoals that are underwater all the time). The Spratly Islands to the south are similar. The new Chinese "city" lays claim to two million square kilometers of open sea (57 percent of the South China Sea).

China continues its policy of not interfering with FONOPS but does sent warships to follow the foreign ships. There are two ways China can enforce its sovereignty exert control over its territorial waters. The traditional response is to attack intruders with gunfire or missiles. Then there is the preferred Chinese method of swarming around the intruder with commercial, coast guard and even navy warships and combat aircraft. This has included causing collisions (often just “bumping”). China does not want a war with the United States, mainly because of the economic risks which could lead to more unrest inside China. Interference with seaborne trade and trading relationships in general would disrupt the Chinese economy and threaten CCP control. What China has demonstrated is a willingness to do everything short of war, especially if they can remain able to claim victim status.

May 19, 2019: The national police revealed that of the 47 politicians under investigation for drug-related activity, 37 ran in the current national elections and 27 won. President Duterte revealed his “narcolist” earlier this year and it consisted of politicians suspected of drug-related activity. Duterte ordered investigations, which are still underway. Things like this are what makes Duterte so popular. For decades politicians with suspected (and sometimes very obvious) criminal connections seemed immune to investigation and prosecution. Duterte had a history of prosecuting dirty politicians before he ran for president and said he would take that program national. These investigations were one of the things that led to lower violence during elections. Politicians with criminal connections tend to hire gangs to help them win elections by disrupting or intimidating opponents. Even so, there were at least twenty deaths and many more injuries in over 40 violent incidents related to the current elections.

May 14, 2019: In the South China Sea, American and Filipino warships trained together near Scarborough Shoal but not close enough to qualify as a FONOP. The joint exercise did annoy the Chinese but recent Chinese attempts to regulate fishing throughout the South China Sea more than annoyed the Philippines and other nations whose territorial waters are now claimed by China.

May 6, 2019: The U.S. Navy conducted its third 2019 FONOP in the South China Sea. This one took two American destroyers within the claimed territorial (closer than 22 kilometers) of some of the Spratly Islands.

 

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