Philippines: Promises And Priorities

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January 7, 2022: The government has accepted the fact that negotiating with China over Chinese claims on Filipino territory is not working. Most of the claims are in the South China Sea. Inside the Philippines negotiation has been more successful. Decades of military and negotiating efforts finally reduced or eliminated the internal threat of leftist and Islamic terrorist rebels. As threatening as the Chinese claims are, most Filipinos are more concerned about local problems with corruption, drug addiction and resulting economic stagnation. The Chinese threat is more visible internationally while the corruption and drugs are not. China was never seen as a major threat while the internal problems with drugs, corruption, Islamic terrorism and unemployment were all up close and personal.

Since elected president in 2016 Rodrigo Duterte did what most Filipinos wanted to reduce crime and drug related violence. Duterte had been doing this locally, as mayor of a major southern city), successfully since the 1990s and proposed trying to make it happen nationally. He did and his term-limited job as president lasts until mid-2022. His successor will find Duterte a tough act to follow. The new president won’t be known until May 2022 and there are already a lot of candidates promising to keep current anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts going.

Duterte also did the seeming impossible by achieving peace with Moslem separatists in the south while also suppressing leftist rebel movements. His agreements with the Islamic minority in the south, led by the separatist MILF, included promises to get the 2015 peace deal that gave southern Moslems more autonomy, approved by the legislature. He did this once MILF agreed to renounce their demands for independence and expulsion of non-Moslems. MILF also had to help destroy Abu Sayyaf, the primary Islamic terrorist group still operating in the south that is responsible for most of the kidnappings and terror bombings down there. Some MILF factions refused to accept the peace deal and had, along with Abu Sayyaf, aligned themselves with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Abu Sayyaf integrated itself with the local clan culture and became very difficult to eliminate. The Moslems have, as always, lots of clan feuds and internal violence which will survive the autonomy deal.

Duterte had, after three years in office, made tremendous progress in keeping his campaign promises. During the last two years of his term Islamic terrorists and communist rebels were much less active because there were a lot fewer of them and there was much less popular support. Duterte may not be the solution to all the problems the country faces but he was the most radical, and successful, politician to come along in decades. He continues to receive record high approval ratings from the voters even as local and foreign critics accuse him of atrocious behavior.

Duterte was also criticized for making serious efforts to negotiate peace with China and ignoring the vigilante violence that his war on drugs depended on to suppress the drug trade. This was more of an international than local problem because those who voted for him knew how his anti-drug tactics worked and were willing to try it nation-wide. His continued high approval ratings complicate foreign efforts to prosecute Duterte for crimes against humanity.

The Chinese threat remains but the Philippines has plenty of powerful allies in a joint struggle against Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

January 5, 2022: In the south (Davao Oriental province) an army patrol encountered a group of NPA (New People’s Army) gunmen and in the subsequent battle killed Menandro Villanueva, the most wanted NPA leader on Mindanao Island. Villanueva was commander of all NPA forces on Mindanao, which is the second largest island and, along with Luzon in the north, contains nearly 70 percent of the nation’s land area and over 90 percent of the population. Villanueva was one of the founders of the NPA and the oldest NPA member still active. In the last year 17 senior NPA commanders have been captured, killed or turned themselves in, as have 545 other NPA members. Clashes like this one, that killed the commander of all NPA forces on Mindanao, have been a major factor in disrupting NPA operations and often leads to the discovery of remote NPA camps that can be destroyed by ground troops, artillery or airstrikes.

NPA is part of a communist movement that appeared, but was not very active, before World War II. After that 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 current 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.

During the last year the military has revised their estimate of how much longer the NPA can survive as an organization. At the start of 2021, it was believed the NPA organization would be eliminated by mid-2022. By late 2021 each month saw more than a dozen planned attacks on the NPA and even more unplanned clashes during patrols. All this activity was killing or capturing over a hundred NPA each month with a growing number surrendering, often as a direct result of these defeats and a growing willingness to report local NPA activity to the security forces, who are now prepared to act quickly on the information. This satisfies civilian calls to act against decades of NPA violence and extortion.

Military and police intel indicates that there were now about 2,000 active (armed and unarmed) NPA members nationwide. Monthly losses have been growing and changing attitudes among leaders about a negotiated end to the conflict. This decline was accelerated by the 2020 decision to designate the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA terrorists under the New Anti-Terrorism Act. The NPA was already suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units must depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This caused growing anger and protests in areas where the NPA still operated “for the good of the people.” The NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk.

For over a decade the government tried, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, were split on which peace terms were acceptable and most were continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Less cash and popular support lead to more desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters was increasingly common. This enabled military intelligence analysts to build an increasingly accurate assessment of the NPA size and capabilities. As a result, more NPA camps were attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested. A growing number of NPA leaders were demoralized by the extent of these losses in popular support. Some NPA leaders felt this was all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal difficult. Meanwhile the NPA maintained its status as a major source of criminal, as opposed to Islamic terrorist, activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines. The exiled NPA leadership still has some support in Western nations, which contributes to criticism of the Filipino tactics used to suppress NPA criminal activity.

Then there was the separatist problem. NPA members in general were dismayed when the Islamic terrorist and Moslem separatist violence in the south sharply declined after the 2014 vote by the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines to establish an autonomous Moslem region. This consisted of the southwest coast of the large southern island Mindanao and the string of smaller islands, mainly Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. The new Moslem entity was called Bangasamoro and provided more autonomy and responsibility. That meant the Moslems down there were responsible for maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangasamoro.

Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao and even more Christian neighbors of those Moslems. Filipino Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 12 million Moslems and over 95 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and more economically successful. The Moslem separatists believed they should run Mindanao even if they were the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the national government were willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines was not. A compromise was finally negotiated and approved by all voters. Diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around but not nearly as active as they were before 2014.

December 31, 2021: The government has agreed to purchase two 3,200-ton corvettes from South Korea for $554 million. Also approved was $55 million to purchase Indian Brahmos anti-ship missiles. The Filipino military has been trying to obtain Brahmos for over two years. The Philippines becomes the first export customer for Brahmos, which India has been trying to sell for over a decade. Brahmos is a weapon that could do some serious damage to Chinese forces in the South China Sea. The government originally wanted to buy two batteries of the PJ-10 BrahMos for coastal defense. Each battery has two or three truck mounted launchers, each with two or three missiles and communications equipment. Each battery also has a mobile radar for detecting targets via normal radar or by detecting and locating ship radar. This offer would cost $70-100 million depending on battery configuration. The Filipino military had to come up with a deal the legislature would approve and the $55 million version was the one that worked. While expensive, the Philippines has been spending a lot more money on warships and aircraft from South Korea.

The land-based BrahMos missiles are carried, three to a truck, on a 12-wheel vehicle which also acts as a launcher. Smaller trucks can be used carrying only two missiles each. The three-ton missile has a range of 300 kilometers and has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the BrahMos is its high speed, literally faster (at up to 5,000 feet per second) than a rifle bullet. Used against hostile surface warships, BrahMos is hard to stop. The Indian Navy is already using Brahmos batteries for coast defense.

India and Russia developed this missile together, and offered the BrahMos for export. The high price of each missile, about $2.7 million, restricts the number of countries that can afford it. The weapon entered service with the Indian navy in 2005. Different versions of the PJ-10 can be fired from the air, from ships or submarines. The maximum speed of 4,900 kilometers an hour makes it harder to intercept, and means it takes five minutes or less to reach its target. The air launched version weighs 2.5 tons, the others, three tons or more.

The 8.4-meter (28 foot) long, 600mm diameter missile is an upgraded version of the Russian SS-NX-26 (Yakhont) missile, which was in development when the Cold War ended in 1991 as an unstoppable “carrier killed” weapon. Lacking money to finish development and begin production, the Russian manufacturer made a deal with India to finish the job. India put up most of the $240 million needed to complete two decades of development. The PJ-10 was initially built in Russia, with India as the initial customer and eventual production partner. Currently the only users are India and Russia, which jointly manufacture components and soon India will be able to assemble Brahmos at an Indian factory using Indian components. Currently India produces about 70 percent of the missile components and by the end of the decade that should reach 100 percent. Exporting Brahmos has been complicated by growing Russian dependence on China for financial and diplomatic support which China and India are threatening war with each other over Chinese claims on Indian territory. China has applied pressure to prevent sales to some Asian nations it has territorial disputes with. That has not been an issue with the Philippines.

December 26, 2021: In the south (Maguindanao province) a high-ranking BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) leader was killed when he and several armed followers encountered an army patrol. Rather than surrender the BIFF men fired on the soldiers who fired back and killed the BIFF leader, but the others got away. There have been several encounters like this in the last few months and many of them end with the BIFF gunmen surrendering. BIFF personnel who surrender or turn themselves in with their weapons and tell interrogators what they know can get amnesty. There are less than a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they have remained active for so long. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. Just surviving has become a full-time BIFF activity.

December 12, 2021: In the south (Camarines Sur province) NPA gunmen clashed with soldiers and one NPA man was killed. The rest of the NPA men got away. There have been several clashes like this recently.

In the north (Kalinga province) a soldier was killed during a similar encounter with NPA gunmen.

December 8, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) soldiers clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf, leaving two Islamic terrorists and a soldier dead. Earlier in the day two Abu Sayyaf men surrendered in a nearby town.

 

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