Philippines: And Now For Something Completely Different


August 12, 2016: Rodrigo Duterte got elected president by promising to use unusual methods that had worked during the 22 years he was the mayor of a southern city. He was not expected to win because he did not have the support of one of the wealthy parties or wealthy political donors. He was an outsider who promised change, had a convincing track record in local politics and ran a highly effective and inexpensive campaign. Duterte is very much an outsider and is not from one of the old, rich and corrupt families that have dominated Filipino politics for centuries. He is a lawyer, served as a prosecutor and then mayor and considered quite competent, but very unorthodox and not bothered with bending or breaking laws to do what his constituents want. This was made clear during the time he was mayor of Davao City (population 1.5 million) in the southeast. This part of the south is largely Christian, most of the Moslems are in the southwest. Until Duterte got elected in the 1990s Davao City was an economic mess and had one of the highest crime rates in the country. The local government was corrupt and Duterte said he would fix it. He did, but not by using methods anyone expected. His most alarming tactic was to approve the use of (according to his critics) death squads to murder criminals caught in the act. In the past bribes and a well-connected lawyer could get the worst criminals set free. No more. The use of death squads by powerful men was not unusual in the Philippines, especially in the south. This is believed to have helped Duterte get away with it. Soon people realized that he maintained control of the death squads and the crime rate plunged after about a thousand accused criminals were murdered. Duterte also cracked down on corruption, drug dealing and bad behavior in general. He hired competent economic and business advisors to create an economic boom. Duterte describes himself as a socialist but not anti-business.

Applying on a national scale what worked in Davao City is getting more media attention as well as similar initial success in curbing crime, corruption and bad government. Duterte supporters put together lists of suspected major players in the drug business and the police were ordered to bring them in. Duterte used a special force of trusted (and largely uncorrupted) police for this and told them operate like their fellow police had in Davao City. Thus from July 1st (when Duterte took office) through August 9th police conducted 4,715 raids (or simply efforts to bring in suspects for questioning). Police also visited over 260,000 known drug locations and sought information. Early on the drug gangs and their corrupt political and police protectors realized that these Duterte tactics were different. Since July 1st 513 drug suspects who refused to cooperate (often by using force) have been killed. But over half a million suspects (mostly users and low level pushers) cooperated and that led to the arrest of dozens of senior people (drug gang leaders, corrupt politicians and police commanders) who provided specifics about widespread corruption. Now that is being followed up. Duterte says he does not condone unjustified killings by the police and all accusations will be investigated. In Davao City that led to very few convictions for “extrajudicial killings” but that was largely because such violence got quick results and many of the drug gangs and corrupt officials fled. That is less likely to happen when these methods are applied on a national scale. The unanswered question is will the resistance of the many corrupt politicians and officials be sufficient to deter Duterte? That will probably be answered by the end of the year.

President Duterte also took a bold initiative to deal with the China crises. He has enlisted former (1992-98) Philippine president Fidel Ramos to visit China and arrange formal negotiations between China and the Philippines over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

August 9, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf and MNLF fighters clashed and four of the Islamic terrorists were killed. MNLF is a Moslem separatist group that made peace with the government in 1996 and still functions as a pro-government (or at least neutral) militia in the south. Over the last year this has led to more friction with Abu Sayyaf and now MNLF is actively working with the army to find and free seven Indonesian sailors held by Abu Sayyaf. MNLF members are angry at Abu Sayyaf kidnapping fellow Moslems (Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians) and killing fellow Moslems in Sulu province (who are often MNLF members). MNLF leaders also realize that right now cooperation with the government against Abu Sayyaf will help get the Moro peace deal approved by congress. This would create Bangsamoro, an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. MILF negotiated this deal with the assent of the MNLF. Abu Sayyaf wants all of the Philippines turned into a Moslem religious dictatorship. MILF and MNLF see Bangsamoro as a more practical goal.

Despite the upcoming (August 20) peace talks the NPA is carrying out more raids and ambushes to obtain cash and weapons so that the NPA can reverse declines in membership and territory. So far this month there have been several clashes with the NPA in their usual haunts (Compostela Valley and Bukidnon provinces) that resulted in casualties and weapons captured for both sides. The leftist NPA is in trouble because more and more rural communities are organizing self-defense militias to not only keep the NPA out of villages but to also carry out patrols to gather information for the army. This has resulted in many more NPA men not only deserting but also accepting the government amnesty program. As a result of this there are only about 4,000 armed NPA men left and many are fighting to survive, not win the revolution. That 45 year old struggle has left over 100,000 people dead and there is little popular support for the NPA anymore. Many of the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) leaders who control the NPA are in exile in Europe but the senior leadership in the Philippines, essential for keeping the NPA operational and loyal, is suffering heavy losses. Running the NPA has been more difficult since 1989 and the collapse of popular support worldwide for communism. These leftist rebels have been fighting, in one form or another, since the end of World War II, trying to establish a communist dictatorship in the Philippines. They have not been very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they were in charge. Enthusiasm for a "communist solution" has gone downhill since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist allies in 1989-91. That massive failure of communist states left NPA much weaker ideologically and vulnerable to the current amnesty program. Even NPA leaders admit that they currently have only about a quarter of their peak (in the 1980s) strength of 26,000 armed members. There have been recent attempts to reverse the decline in popularity. NPA men are instructed to behave better around civilians and the NPA has been found giving some civilians (especially health or aid workers) compensation (a few hundred dollars each) for wounds received during NPA attacks on soldiers or police. The government has increased its efforts to provide medical care for such victims of NPA violence and the NPA is trying to compete. But NPA really can’t compete. Out in the bush they survive by acting like bandits. The call their stealing “revolutionary taxes” or, if a large company is being attacked, “revolutionary justice” but most Filipinos see it all as crimes by another name. The NPA says it is willing to negotiate a peace deal, but first they have to agree among themselves what exactly it is they have to offer.

August 7, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf ambushed some soldiers and killed two of them.

August 4, 2016: Indonesia confirmed that it would no longer pay ransom to Abu Sayyaf and proposed a joint agreement between Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia to coordinate operations to destroy Abu Sayyaf and free all the hostages they hold. Abu Sayyaf is demanding $4.5 million for the Indonesians it has taken recently. Another Indonesian sailor was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf yesterday, off the Malaysia coast.

August 3, 2016: The government warned Filipino fishermen to avoid Scarborough Shoal, for their own safety. This comes as a surprise to the fishermen who have long worked the waters around Scarborough Shoal. After all on July 12th the Permanent Court of Arbitration backed the Filipino accusations that China is acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea and that it was illegal for China to build artificial islands (as happened in Scarborough Shoal) and claim them as Chinese territory. This was a major disappointment for China which used lots of bribes and threats after the case was filed in 2013. China thought it could organize an effective international opposition to the court. That did not work. China also said it would not recognize the decision by the internationally recognized court and now threatens to use force to protect its claims in the South China Sea. In June, just before Duterte took office, a group of Filipino nationalists tried to plant a Filipino flag on one of islets around Scarborough Shoal but were physically prevented from doing so by Chinese Coast Guard vessels. This is the sort of treatment Filipino fishing boats have been getting for years. The Chinese have been particularly active at this in 2016. Chinese Coast Guard vessels tend to be around Scarborough Shoal nearly all the time and when they are they will violently (without using weapons) force Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing areas. There were several incidents in March and April. Some believe this new vigilance was triggered by what happened in 2015 when China left buoys at Scarborough Shoal to warn non-Chinese ships to stay away. Filipino fishermen not only ignored the warning but towed the buoys back home and turned them over to police. In response Chinese coast guard ships visited Scarborough Shoal more frequently and apparently with orders to force foreign vessels, especially fishing boats, they encountered away from the area. China was unable to spin all this in their favor and now they have more bad press because of how the Filipino political activists were treated. Scarborough Shoal is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law it is Filipino. The Chinese coast guard has a reputation for ignoring international law and other illegal activity by Chinese ships. It appears that China encourages its coast guard to do whatever they can get away with to drive foreign fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds that are now claimed by China. These claims are backed up by artificial islands created near Scarborough Shoal and elsewhere in the South China Sea. China stations military personnel and weapons on these tiny island fortresses. In preparation for the island building China wants all foreign vessels out of the area. President Duterte has also made it clear that he will not go to war (at least not unless America does) with China over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the Philippines is vastly outnumbered by the Chinese military. Duterte says he asked the Americans if they would help the Philippines fight to retain off shore areas that are legally Filipino and the U.S. told him such active military assistance would only be provided if the Philippines were attacked by China. This is what the Chinese hoped for and why they have always stopped short of actual combat in forcing (or intimidating) other nations out of disputed South China Sea territories. Duterte points out that the Philippines should concentrate its increased defense spending on security problems at home, like Islamic terrorism, Moslem separatism and the many private militias maintained in the Philippines, especially in the Moslem south.

July 30, 2016: The government withdrew its offer of a ceasefire with leftist NPA rebels. The NPA refused to abide by the ceasefire and kept attacking soldiers, police and civilians.

In the south (Basilan and Sulu provinces) troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf and killed six of the Islamic terrorists in two clashes. Eleven soldiers were wounded.

July 29, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) troops clashed with Maute, a local Islamic terrorist group. There were no casualties but the soldiers did capture explosives the Islamic terrorists were planning to use for bombings. Maute was founded in 2013 by dissident MILF members who did not want peace with the government and preferred to keep fighting. By 2015 Maute had made little progress and decided to proclaim itself part of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). After that Maute became more violent and threatening. At the start of 2016 Maute had nearly 200 members. Maute has suffered heavy losses this year in part because MILF got fed up with them and quietly helped the security forces with information on exactly who and where Maute was. Meanwhile Maute found that that behaving like ISIL did not help with recruiting and fundraising but just brought more pressure on them. An army offensive in February killed at least 24 Maute men (and possibly over 40). There are now believed to be fewer than a hundred Maute members and the army and MILF are continuing to hunt them down.

July 26, 2016: Malaysia confirmed that Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped the five man crew of a tugboat on July 18th. The tugboat was founded abandoned off the coast of Borneo, less than a hundred kilometers from the Philippines, on the 18th. Abu Sayyaf often operates in that area.


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