Philippines: China Imposes A Blockade

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March 26, 2014: The signing of the MILF peace treaty is set for the 27 th and government officials are citing that as a good reason for the communist NPA to finally enter serious peace talks. With the recent capture of NPA senior leadership and increasing surrenders of NPA gunmen and junior leaders the government senses an opportunity to get talks going with the new NPA leaders. Yet there is also the tendency of the Filipino communists to be stubborn and very violent in settling internal disputes over strategy. If the new NPA leadership consists of violent traditionalists (who set off another round of internal “purges” and massacres) then the military solution, to eradicate the NPA by force, will have to be pursued to its bloody conclusion. Or at least until some future set of NPA leaders accept a less violent view of the future.

The army and police have noted an increase in NPA ambushes and attacks on checkpoints since the capture of the NPA leadership on the 22nd. The NPA says this will increase to commemorate the 45th anniversary (on March 29th) of the Filipino Communist Party declaring war on the government. 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 it any more. Many of the Communist Party of the Philippines leaders are in exile in Europe but key leaders in the Philippines are still essential for keeping the NPA operational and loyal. That task has been more difficult since 1989 (and the collapse of popular support worldwide for communism). The communist rebels have been fighting, in one form or another, since the end of World War II, trying to establish a communist dictatorship in the country. They have not been very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they obtained control of the country. 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 recently 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.

Army intelligence believes NPA morale is poor and declining. While there are still communist true believers in the NPA, they are a minority. Less stalwart communists are surrendering after noting the decades of fighting have not achieved any of the promised changes. The “failure of communism” in 1989-91 is still an issue within the NPA, a cancer that is eroding the resolve of many key NPA members. Many surrendering NPA leaders report a realization that the “trends are not favorable” and that many NPA units have basically turned into gangsters. The government amnesty program offers a chance at a new life and enough former NPA members have made a go of it to encourage more of the active NPA members to give peace a change.

The gangster reputation also rankles many NPA members, who are told they are rebels for social justice. But many of the clashes with soldiers turn out to be ambushes of troops doing humanitarian work. The military will provide emergency medical care in rural areas and escort aid workers and supplies headed for poor communities who appreciate the help. All this makes many NPA “rebels” feel like they have become the bad guys.

As bad as things are for the NPA they are still a class act compared to Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic terrorists group consisting of many former MILF men. Abu Sayyaf has gone total gangster and relies on robbery, extortion and kidnapping to remain in business. They still spout Islamic radical rhetoric but have long since ceased trying to practice much of it.

March 22, 2014: In the south (Cebu Province) the leader of Communist Party of the Philippines and six other senior officials were arrested by a military-police task force. The communist leaders were caught as they were moving to another safe house. The army had apparently penetrated the security system the senior leaders depended on and found out about the move. The seven were taken without a struggle. Weapons and documents were captured as well and what is found on the four laptops may end up doing even more damage to the NPA (the armed forces of the communist party). Other communist officials demanded that the government release the two senior officials (a husband and wife) because they were key negotiators for peace talks. The government brushed that off as it was part of a 1990s scam to obtain long-term immunity from arrest for key communist officials.

Elsewhere in the south (Mindanao) 46 NPA men surrendered, many bringing their weapons with them.  Another five surrendered in the same area two days later. All had deserted and gave details of how all these desertions and the low morale was changing NPA capabilities in the area.  

March 17, 2014: China told the Philippines that the continued presence of Filipino marines on Second Thomas Reef is intolerable and that China will deal with this violation of Chinese sovereignty. This is how China warns victims that an attack is coming and the Philippines is asking the United States for some backup here. The U.S. condemned the Chinese blockade but it is unclear what more the U.S. will do. The next step appears to be a tight blockade of the Filipino garrison to starve them out, as Chinese civilian and military ships blocked two recent efforts by Filipino supply ships to deliver food and water to the small garrison on Second Thomas Reef. The supplies were eventually air dropped, but that might also face interference and all this might be preparations to an outright assault by Chinese troops. Resupply by air is expensive and uncertain during bad weather. For the last year China has been increasing pressure on the Philippines to remove small detachments of sailors and marines stationed on nine islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands. In particular the Chinese want this detachment stationed on a World War II era landing ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) removed. The Filipino navy deliberately grounded the LST on Second Thomas Reef in 1999 to provide a place for an observation team. In 2013 Chinese patrol ships came within nine kilometers of the LST, which China insists is there illegally. The Philippines warns China that it will resist any attempts to use force against the grounded ship. The initial response from China was constructing more buildings (on stilts) on nearby Mischief Reef (which is only 126 kilometers from the Philippines’ Palawan Island). Second Thomas Reef and nearby Reed Bank are 148 kilometers west of the Philippines (Palawan Island) and well within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Although the EEZ is recognized by international law (and a treaty that China signed and uses to defend waters off its own coast) China says that does not apply here because all the islets in the South China Sea belong to China and there is no room for negotiation on that point.  Most countries in the region (except Japan, which would rather not dwell on this) note that this was how Japan behaved before World War II. Official U.S. policy is to try and get everyone to calm down and be less provocative. American P-3C maritime patrol aircraft regularly fly over the Spratly Islands and photograph Chinese installations and naval activities. This data is shared with the Philippines and perhaps others. China is the biggest offender in the Spratly Island disputes and shows no sign of slowing, or backing, down. Now China is warning the world that it is ready to escalate.

March 15, 2014: In the south (Davao del Sur province) NPA landmines killed two soldiers and wounded three others. The NPA use of landmines is very unpopular with civilians who are often victims of these devices the NPA uses mines to protect their rural camps or to delay pursuit by troops. The NPA in Davao del Sur province have long been very active and more political than most other NPA units. But this is an exception and the army is keeping the pressure on in Davao del Sur, where NPA efforts have crippled the economy and caused a lot of civilian casualties and resentment.  

March 10, 2014: In the south (Davao del Sur province) NPA gunmen attacked a police station and ambushed army reinforcements leaving ten dead while losing two of their own. The police station attack succeeded as the objective was to seize the station to steal weapons and other military equipment.  

 

 

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