The government is monitoring 389 officials, including 11 provincial governors and 55 mayors, who were found (via captured documents and interrogations) to have paid extortion demands by NPA rebels in the past. These officials are candidates for office in the May 2019 elections. These demands are typically made during election campaigns when NPA factions threaten violence and even assassination if officials don’t pay up. Making these extortion payments is against the law and a violation of election regulations but these laws have rarely been enforced. In areas where NPA is particularly strong officials quietly pay. Some of those who have paid are suspected to also being supporters of NPA, which is the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party.
The NPA has long depended on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk. The government has been trying for years, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal. The NPA leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, are split on a peace agreement and most are 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 of the organization. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Those actions begin to suffer from 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 where NPA camps or weapons storage sites are considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is 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 more difficult. Meanwhile, the NPA has become 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. Despite all that the NPA and communism still have supporters, especially among the well-educated.
March 6, 2019: The Chinese government said it was investigating Filipino accusations that Chinese ships were still preventing Filipino fishing boats from working near Pagasa Island, a traditional Filipino fishing area. In late January China appeared to have reduced to 42 the number of warships and naval militia boats near Pagasa. China had as many as 95 of these ships off Pagasa in late 2018 as the Philippines began a construction project on the island to create more land and put up more buildings. China did not press the issue by having the militia fishing boats try to physically block Filipino commercial or military ship from getting to Pagasa but it had become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa.
China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. Filipinos have lived on the island since 1956 and there has been a Filipino military presence there since 1970. China has been increasingly belligerent about its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. After 2014 Chinese military and civilian ships were showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels tried (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard patrol boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter. China is also concerned with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States).
March 1, 2019: The U.S. declared that it would defend the Philippines in the South China Sea according to the mutual defense treaty the U.S. and Philippines have had since 1951. Filipino officials asked for a more precise definition of what constituted an “attack.” Chinese strategy is to be aggressive but not to the extent that it would be an obvious act of war. Filipino officials are worried that the U.S. might get involved in a war with China over access to the South China Sea even though no Filipino territory was being threatened. That could, in theory, oblige the Philippines to become a part of that war because of the 1951 treaty.
February 28, 2019: In the south (North Cotabato province), BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) gunmen ambushed and killed three soldiers in two incidents the Islamic terrorists described as revenge for the death of a BIFF leader several days earlier during an army operation. BIFF is a MILF faction that backs persecutions of Christians in areas of the south where Christians are present in large numbers (and often the majority). BIFF also considers it part of the local ISIL franchise.
February 25, 2019: The navy is upgrading the electronics on its three del Pilar class frigates. These ships are former American Hamilton class Coast Guard cutters. These are 3,200 ton ocean going patrol ships that the Philippines added more weapons to and uses as warships. The new electronics would improve the search capabilities of the del Pilars, which spend most of their time patrolling offshore waters looking for smugglers or Chinese ships seeking to claim Filipino maritime areas and the small islands found there. The navy has managed to update and upgrade its equipment on a small budget by soliciting donations from allies. That has worked. Since 2015 Australia has donated two LCH handing craft as well as many smaller vessels. The two Balikpapan class LCH ships can land up to 180 tons of cargo directly on a beach. These ships are oceangoing, have a crew of 16 and an endurance of five days while carrying a full load and about two weeks if traveling empty. Eight of these ships were built in Australia in the early 1970s. Australia refurbished two of those that were retired, before turning them over to the Philippines. South Korea and Japan have also donated ships. This is an effort to assist the Philippines in upgrading and expanding its navy despite having very little cash to pay for it. The Philippines has also received patrol aircraft from Japan as well as eleven of the 21 coastal radars the Philippines is installing to cover water areas often used by smugglers or Chinese trespassers. The navy is buying 12 new coastal fast patrol boats for use down south around Mindanao and the smaller southern islands. The navy recently received two 12 meter (40 foot) patrol boats from Japan.
February 22, 2019: In the capital (Manila), the first leader of the newly approved BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) was sworn in. Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim is now the interim chief minister of BARMM until elections are held in 2022. Armed members of MILF are now responsible for local security although the Filipino armed forces still handles most of the counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIL, Abu Sayyaf and BIFF. Murad has 80 members of the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) to assist in running BARMM until the first elected officials are known and 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 government responded to a recently released Abu Sayyaf video that showed three hostages (a Malaysian and two Indonesians taken from a ship on December 5th 2018) held captive somewhere on Jolo Island. Abu Sayyaf demanded that the government pay the $700,000 ransom or the three captives will be killed. The government refused to consider paying ransom as this would provide Abu Sayyaf and ISIL with cash to fund further terror attacks and encourage more kidnappings. The last time Abu Sayyaf actually killed a foreign hostage because a ransom was not paid was in 2017 when a German man was killed after being held three months. While Abu Sayyaf considers itself part of the local ISIL franchise Abu Sayyaf remains a largely local Islamic terrorist/gangster operation that depends on a lot of good will from fellow Moslems in the southwestern islands (especially Sulu and Jolo). When they have the cash, Abu Sayyaf spreads it around to purchase some loyalty. When the cash supply gets depleted, as it has over the last few years, the local support weakens. That is what has been happing over the last few years as the persistent efforts by the military (especially the marines and scout rangers) have caused a lot of damage. American tech assistance (intelligence gathering and special operations advisors) have made it more difficult for groups like Abu Sayyaf to avoid constant attacks on their camps. Worse Abu Sayyaf has lost lots of key personnel (tech experts and leaders) and this has led to more losses and fewer successful efforts to raise money and avoid detection. For over a year Abu Sayyaf has been very much on the defensive and that is not a good sign for an Islamic terrorist organization.
February 21, 2019: American intelligence agreed with their Philippines counterparts that Filipino native Hatib Sawadjaan was named the new head of the Philippines branch of ISIL at the end of 2018. Hatib Sawadjaan has apparently never left the Philippines and was influenced by foreign ISIL members who fled to the Philippines.
February 18, 2019: The National Police reported that a recent survey found that two-thirds of Filipinos say their villages or neighborhoods are either free of drug activity or that such activity is much reduced since the war on drugs began three years ago. President Duterte continues to get a lot of criticism, mostly from Western nations, about the death toll but Duterte remains a very popular president both for the reduction in drug activity as well as increased prosecutions of corrupt officials and police as well reduced Islamic terrorist activity in the Moslem south.
February 17, 2019: In the south (North Cotabato province), a local MILF leader was killed because of a family feud. Such fatal feuds are more common in the Moslem south than the rest of the country and that has long been the case. This time police identified the four killers and arrested them.
February 16, 2019: In the south (Sulu Island), four Abu Sayyaf men were killed and four wounded during a clash with soldiers seeking those responsible for the January 27 bombing of a Catholic cathedral. Elsewhere in the south NPA released six policemen who had been held for ransom since late 2018. The leftist rebels said they released the six as a peace gesture while the military says the six were freed because the military pressure had made it difficult to keep the prisoners.
February 14, 2019: In the south (Bukidnon province), soldiers visiting a village encountered about 30 NPA rebels and a firefight broke out. The troops called in reinforcements and the leftist rebels fled but lost four dead and several more wounded. Several weapons were seized along with a lot of equipment the rebels discarded to aid their escape.