After more than forty formal negotiating sessions government and MILF officials believe that the final peace deal will be signed by the end of the month. Then will come considerable drama during implementation. There is already agreement on power sharing and this was the last major issue to be settled. Only some minor items remain and both sides believe these will be settled within weeks. The peace deal will create an autonomous Moslem region on the southwest coast of Mindanao (the large southern island) and the string of smaller islands (Sulu, Basilan) extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia.
The head of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet caused a stir recently when he openly talked about Chinese objectives and options in the Western Pacific. The scariest one had China seeking to obtain some bit of disputed territory with “grab and negotiate” tactics. The way this works the Chinese would quickly mobilize forces and seize some territory from South Korea, the Philippines or Japan or whoever and then offer to make peace. This can work, but is highly risky if you are facing a foe, like the Japanese, who are better trained, very determined and more experienced in naval operations. China denounced such talk but did not dwell on the fact that China has used such tactics in the past and Chinese openly discuss using it again in the growing number of offshore disputes with neighbors. In response, Japanese publish discussions of how they are going to cope and the U.S. announces that it will help. Meanwhile China continues to boost its defense budget. In 2014 China will spend nearly $150 billion, more than Britain, France and Germany combined. This is the result of a trend that began when the Cold War ended in 1991. Europeans began reducing defense spending while China began preparing to heat things up on the other end of Eurasia.
The anti-corruption effort continues as a former governor (of Oriental Mindoro province) was sentenced to ten years in prison for a corrupt act committed in 1993. This was one of 38 similar prosecutions underway.
March 1, 2014: The U.S. ambassador criticized China for their recent use of force (water cannon) to force Filipino fishing boats away from Scarborough Shoal. Since 2013 Filipino fishermen have complained that they are being chased away from their traditional fishing areas off the Filipino coast by Chinese coast guard ships near Scarborough Shoal. This is in violation of a 2012 deal made with the Chinese, who were quick to violate the agreement. Not only did Chinese patrol boats soon return to Scarborough Shoal but Chinese fishing boats again began operating there and even erected a flimsy barrier (with rowboats, rope and fishing nets) across the entrance to the lagoon and forcibly prevented Filipino fishing boats from entering. Scarborough Shoal is in waters the Philippines claims in accordance with international law. The shoal is only 250 kilometers from one of the large inhabited Philippine islands (Palawan) and 1,200 kilometers from China. Despite this China claims ownership of Scarborough Shoal but has not yet used deadly force to assert that claim. What China is apparently doing is sending coast guard patrol boats on “fishery protection” missions to “protect Chinese fishermen” and clear the area of unauthorized (non-Chinese) fishing boats. According to China, they are in compliance with the 2012 deal, as they never agreed that Chinese fishing boats could not operate around Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines does not agree but has refrained from sending warships to the shoal and chasing the Chinese fishing boats away. To Filipinos this is another example of China saying one thing and doing another. U.S. Navy officials have said that if China occupied disputed islands in South China Sea the United States would help, as it is obliged to do because of a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. The U.S. refused to say exactly how it would help. The U.S. did point out that it is shifting naval forces from other parts of the world to the Pacific and currently has fifty warships in the Western Pacific and will increase that by 20 percent over the next six years.
February 28, 2014: In the south (Zamboanga del Sur province) a college student, kidnapped the day before, escaped and contacted the police. It’s still unclear if the kidnappers were Islamic terrorists (who use kidnapping to sustain themselves these days) or common criminals.
In the south (Maguindanao province) the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) rebels attacked an army base and were repulsed with three rebels killed and three soldiers wounded. BIFF is a radical MILF faction that does not support the peace negotiations. In 2012 the main Moslem separatist group (MILF) negotiated a peace deal with BIFF which was then supposed to see the dissidents rejoin MILF and stop causing problems with their attacks on Christians in the south. That deal quickly fell apart and the BIFF violence had been getting worse since the Islamic radical group was established in 2011. BIFF soon went back to attacking Christians and the security forces soon after the 2012 deal. BIFF contained about a thousand armed men in early 2013 and is believed to be down to a few hundred gunmen at this point. BIFF had become increasingly violent, and outspoken about how MILF is selling out Moslems. MILF was reluctant to use force to coerce the BIFF outlaws to get with the new peace deal. That would appear too much like a civil war that might continue once the peace negotiations created a Moslem homeland down south. Because BIFF refused to comply with any of the MILF deals MILF has been more and more helpful to the army with information on what BIFF is up to and where their bases are.
February 27, 2014: The government has accused China of using force (in the form of water cannon on a coast guard ship) t0 prevent Filipino boats from fishing at the Scarborough Shoal.
February 24, 2014: In the south (Surigao) troops clashed with the NPA and killed one rebel while the rest fled, apparently with casualties because several weapons were left behind.
February 20, 2014: In the south (Sulu Island) marines rescued two sisters who had been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf on nearby Jolo Island eight months ago. The Islamic terrorists were demanding a $1.1 million ransom from their family in Manila. The two sisters were documentary film makers who were in working on Jolo Island. The two escaped by slipping away from their captors who were preoccupied with a marine patrol that was nearby. The guards rushed off to escape a fight with the marines while the two women ran in the opposite direction to a village where the marines were. The two captives said that since they were kidnapped they often had to move in a hurry because the military was nearby. Many of those potential encounters were the result of civilians alerting the military to the presence of the Islamic terrorists.
February 16, 2014: In the north (Abra province) five soldiers were wounded during a brief gun battle with NPA rebels. The troops were responding to complaints that a group of armed NPA men were going to small rural villages and extorting cash and goods.
In the south (Batangas province) NPA rebels set fire to eight busses in an effort to extort money from the bus company.
February 8, 2014: In the south (Palawan Island) police arrested a senior NPA leader and his wife. Both were wanted (for a combined reward of $100,000) for numerous crimes.
February 7, 2014: In the south (Basilan Island) Abu Sayyaf fought with some pro-government militiamen, killing two and wounding three before retreating with at least two of their own wounded.