March 5, 2020:
President Duterte has ordered that the existing VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) with the United States) be canceled. In this case, it means not renewed. Without the VFA any American troops entering the Philippines will have to apply for a visa. This is a time consuming process but that is not all. Without VFA American military personnel are subject to Filipino courts and legal proceedings. As a general rule the United States requires something like the VFA, usually called a Status Of Forces (SOF) agreement, before it will allow U.S. troops to enter the territory of a friendly nation. The Philippines still has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and that could still be invoked by the Philippines if needed. The more immediate damage from no VFA is American military assistance during an emergency, usually of the natural disaster variety. The closest American aid us usually the U.S. Navy which can quickly provide helicopters, medical care, electrical power (from docked warships) as well as radio and other communications gear brought ashore for a disaster zone. Without a VFA/SOF such emergency aid is limited depending on the risk from corrupt local justice systems and politicians. There are fewer problems with American troops visiting the Philippines to provide training assistance or, as has often happened in the last few decades the U.S. forces provide additional intelligence and aerial surveillance support. Without the VFA these troops have restrictions on their activities. They are usually restricted to the bases they are working from as well as travel restrictions. The Filipino military opposes the VFA cancellation but the president is the boss and has the final say.
The loss of the VFA is in response to the U.S. sanctions imposed on some Filipinos involved with Duterte’s war on drugs. One of the key Filipino police commanders who carried out the war on drugs was Ronald dela Rosa, who commanded the national police at the start of the war on drugs. Two years later he retired, ran for the senate and won. His victory was largely because of his prominent role in getting the war on drugs going. Even before Duterte became president dela Rosa was a fan and in the senate he became a major ally of the president. But some foreign nations consider dela Rosa a criminal for what they feel was illegal acts during the war on drugs. Duterte and most Filipinos disagree with that. They also disagree with punishing dela Rosa with sanctions so there is popular support for discarding the VFA.
Since 2016, when Duterte was elected and began, as promised, the war on drugs, nearly 6,000 suspected drug dealers, distributors and smugglers have died. Another 240,000 suspects were arrested or turned themselves in. About four percent of those arrested turned out to be key people in the drug business and this has done a lot of damage to the illegal drug trade.
For the people most affected by the war on drugs, there is approval. Filipinos feel safer and more confident about their future. The national crime rate is 3.3 percent less than a year ago and is apparently continuing to decline. This has been despite foreign and local protests over the “shoot first” tactics employed. Recent surveys have shown fewer Filipinos are victims of crime in general and most attribute this to the anti-drug operations. Drugs are still a problem as smuggling of heroin and meth from Burma (the Golden Triangle) and cocaine from South America continue, as do a growing number of synthetic drugs from China. The smugglers and dealers are now a lot more discreet and harder for the police, and even many potential customers, to find. In the last few years, hundreds of corrupt cops and other officials have been identified and prosecuted or simply expelled from their jobs if there was not enough evidence for prosecution. Many corrupt senior officials were identified and punished.
In addition to eliminating the VFA, Duterte has also ordered senior government officials to cancel any plans to visit the United States. If nothing else this forces the Americans to discuss these matters with the Filipino government. Filipinos often feel ignored or taken for granted by the United States and there is some truth to that. But now the Philippines is the front line in the conflicts with China. There is no disagreement over that but as usual, the devil is in the details.
Islamic And Political Terrorism
The Islamic terrorists (Abu Sayyaf and smaller factions) and leftist NPA rebels are becoming less active because their numbers have been reduced by over a decade of army and police campaigns directed at them. The military believes the NPA will be gone, at least as a widespread threat, by the middle of the decade. The Islamic terror groups can be reduced to local nuisances but not completely eliminated because Islamic scripture explicitly justifies and encourages terrorism. Most Moslems don’t interpret those portions of the Koran that way but there are always some Islamic clergy and scholars who do. This has been a problem within the Moslem world for over a thousand years and, until the last century, was largely ignored in the West because fanatical Moslems were content to attack less enthusiastic (about religious violence) fellow Moslems. Over a trillion dollars in unexpected oil and gas income plus the development of cheap global media and communications made it possible for more non-Moslems to be threatened or attacked. Moslem leaders finally admitted that they had this problem but several decades of efforts to find a solution have so far failed. Every country with a Moslem minority has had to find its own temporary solution. In the Philippines, it was a sustained military campaign against Islamic terror groups and autonomy for a few Moslem majority provinces in the south. Eight percent of Filipinos are Moslem and most live in those few southern provinces.
March 3, 2020: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops clashed with a BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) Islamic terrorists and killed three of them while two others got away. BIFF considers itself part of
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and
has been under constant heavy attack since late 2018. Only a few dozen members remain active. BIFF was originally formed to oppose BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), the autonomous Moslem region because they considered it insufficient. Since it was finally created in early 2019 BARMM has proved very popular among Moslems and that meant much less support for groups like BIFF.
BARMM finally gained voter approval in early 2019. This led to the disarmament, demobilization and retraining of MILF militias, a process that will not be complete until 2022 because this process includes over 25,000 local militias and private armies. Many of the former MILF and militia fighters will become part of the 40,000 strong Bangsamoro security forces. In the meantime, these MILF and local militia forces are expected to help deal with organized crime and Islamic terrorists operating near them. Most of the MILF militias began as local defense forces and now that is their primary function until they are demobilized, with many members ending up as local police.
March 2, 2020: A recent survey by an international accounting firm found that in the last two years 21 percent of Filipino companies reported they had been asked to pay a bribe and 14 percent reported they had lost a business opportunity because a rival had paid a bribe. The survey showed that corruption had gotten worse in 2019.
February 29, 2020: In the south (Sarangani Province), soldiers acting on information from several recently captured or surrendered NPA rebels found over a dozen rifles and ammunition buried in several locations near rural towns and villages.
February 28, 2020: In the south (Maguindanao province), troops, acting on a tip from a local civilian found and captured a BIFF camp and seized weapons, explosives and documents.
In central Philippines (Bohol and Negros Oriental provinces), two clashes with NPA forces over the last two days left three of the leftist rebels and one soldier dead. This is only the third time in ten years that there has been any NPA activity in this area. Military intelligence believes NPA is sending members to areas the leftists had long been driven out of to rebuild. Local civilians have not forgotten NPA violence and extortion and cell phones make it easy to report NPA activity.
February 23, 2020: In the south (Sulu province), two known Abu Sayyaf men were killed after troops found them. The two Islamic terrorists refused to surrender and began firing at the troops. That gunfire left two soldiers wounded. One of the dead men was also known to be active in the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction.
February 16, 2020: In the north (Isabela province), troops encountered a high-ranking NPA leader, a medical specialist and a bodyguard and killed all three in a brief gun battle. The three men were seeking money from local civilians and one of the locals called the military which responded. The NPA has long been active in this area and is generally regarded as bandits who believe in communism.
February 15, 2020: In the south (North Cotabato province), troops tracked down a known NPA leader who was hiding out in a rural village. Soldiers and police surrounded the hideout and called on their suspect to surrender but instead, they got gunfire. The NPA leader was shot dead.
February 6, 2020: In the south (Agusan del Sur), a week of army operations against NPA forces in the area led to the death of several NPA members, the seizure of NPA equipment and the surrender, with their weapons, of 19 local NPA.
February 5, 2020: In the south (Agusan del Norte province), a long police investigation finally tracked down a senior NPA leader. The man refused to surrender, fired on the police and was himself killed.
January 29, 2020: In the south (Bukidnon province), NPA rebels ambushed a police convoy and a policeman and wounded three others. One of the uninjured men in the convoy was a police general involved with planning police efforts to eliminate the NPA entirely.
January 26, 2020: The Coast Guard has received three elderly, but serviceable, S.211 two-seat jet trainer aircraft for coastal patrol. These seven ton aircraft can stay in the air for more than four hours by carrying an external fuel tank.