Philippines: Feeling A Little Better

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November 17, 2015: This year the security forces in the south have tried, without a lot of success, to cut off the supply of cash Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf has been receiving from continued kidnapping. Despite government warnings to foreign tourists about the kidnapping danger many still travel to the Moslem south. Actually, given the small number of Westerners kidnapped versus the thousands who still visit the south, the odds of being grabbed are reassuringly, for many visitors, low enough. Even though it is illegal to pay the Islamic terrorists ransom, foreign governments (or organizations) often do and that keeps Abu Sayyaf going. There has been a major effort to sharply reduce the size and capability of Abu Sayyaf by trying to make kidnapping unprofitable. Rescuing hostages is an important part of that but is difficult to pull off. The kidnapping continues despite more than a decade of army and marine presence in Jolo and Sulu provinces. All this began after 2000 when Abu Sayyaf found out how much money it could make by kidnapping foreigner. All that cash made them a much more powerful terrorist organization. But the increased military and police pressure in the south made it difficult for the Islamic terrorists to expand or enjoy their wealth. The military concentrated on the islands where Abu Sayyaf initially came from. This is the Sulu Archipelago in the southwest, particularly the islands of Basilan, Jolo and Sulu. In this area the Islamic radicals still have lots of fans. But these terrorists are not folk heroes to everyone down there, mainly because Abu Sayyaf criminal activities (kidnapping, extortion and robbery) disrupts the economy. Moreover a growing number of local Moslem civilians are victims of these crimes, or collateral damage. Abu Sayyaf is fading away because of all this, but slowly, because the region has always sustained a certain amount of banditry.

November 11, 2015: In the north (Albay province) soldiers and police found and seized an NPA camp. There was a 20 minute firefight that left two rebel wounded and captured. Several other rebels managed to escape. Several weapons and lots of equipment and documents were seized in the camp. The police believe that the capture of this camp means that Albay province is largely free of NPA activity as are two adjacent provinces. 

In the south (Sulu) troops clashed with a group of twenty Abu Sayyaf killing two of them. The troops were part of a larger operation seeking to find and free twelve kidnap victims the Islamic terrorists were holding for ransom.

November 8, 2015: In the south (Mindanao) Abu Sayyaf released a Malaysian captive they had captured earlier in 2015 after a ransom of over $100,000 was paid.

American B-52 bombers flew through air space in the South China Sea that China now considers Chinese territory. China protested, the United States ignored the protest and the Philippines felt a little better. 

November 7, 2015: In the south (Sulu) troops clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf and managed to wound the leader, a man wanted for organizing the kidnapping of two Germans earlier in 2015. A five million dollar ransom was paid to free the Germans.

November 5, 2015: In the south (Sulu) troops captured an Abu Sayyaf camp and found an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) flag. Some former members of Abu Sayyaf have formed a local branch of the more radical ISIL. There are several of these pro-ISIL factions operating in the south. There appear to be at least a hundred Filipino Moslems who in these ISIL type groups so far. This does not include BIFF, an anti-peace MILF faction. MILF was supposed to deal with BIFF but didn’t, apparently because a lot of MILF members have some sympathy for the radical BIFF views. The army believes there are only about a hundred armed BIFF members left, mainly because of several major military operations in areas where BIFF has been active. BIFF has also pledged loyalty to ISIL but has not yet adopted the ISIL practice of committing horrific murders. MILF is increasingly (and openly) critical of BIFF and that may be why BIFF has not been acting like an ISIL franchise.  MILF is also angry at BIFF for creating doubts among Christians in parliament where the peace treaty is currently stalled.  

November 3, 2015: The Philippines, Australia, Japan and South Korea openly approved of recent American moves in the South China Sea, especially sending warships and aircraft into areas China insists are Chinese. Other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) were more discrete but privately relieved that America had finally acted decisively on an issue that threatens so many nations. Meanwhile the Philippines and its closest neighbors are slowly losing control of their offshore waters to increasingly aggressive Chinese claims. In all these claims were enforced the Philippines would lose control of 80 percent of its waters in the West Philippine Sea while Malaysia loses 80 percent of its coastal waters off Sabah and Sarawak. Vietnam loses half its coastal waters while Brunei loses 90 percent. Even Indonesia loses 30 percent of its coastal waters facing the South China Sea. These losses include several known offshore oil and natural gas fields and a number of areas that have not been explored yet plus lucrative fishing grounds and control over vital shipping routes. China is doing all this by ignoring the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty (as well as at least two other similar treaties. The widely adopted (including by China) 1994 agreement recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land “national territory” and under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. More importantly the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. While this agreement eliminated or reduced many of the existing or potential disputes it did not completely deal with all of them. Thus some nations keep violating the agreements, usually because they feel their claims supersede the international agreements. China is the most frequent offender. For example China claims that American electronic monitoring ships are conducting illegal espionage while in the Chinese EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas that should be under its control. China is not alone, but because China is pushing the limits of how the 1994 law can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) other nations with similar opportunities to lay claim to crucial chunks of the seascape are ready to emulate China if some of the more aggressive Chinese ploys actually work. This is one reason why China faces strong opposition from nations worldwide.

October 30, 2015: In the south (Jolo) police found the body of a 73 year old South Korean kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf in January 2015 and held for ransom. He appears to have died of natural causes.

October 29, 2015: The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it does indeed have jurisdiction to settle the dispute between the Philippines and China over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. This could result in a legal decision against China by 2016 even though China has indicated that it will not abide by any such ruling. Challenging such a decision exposes China to trade sanctions, which would stall economic growth and create a recession that could cause unrest. Chinese leaders are eager to avoid that. Meanwhile China is threatening to use force to enforce its claims. China is warning the world that it is ready to escalate (and enforce its claims) but appears afraid that the world would call their bluff. The Philippines may be militarily weak, but in the Permanent Court of Arbitration the odds are more even and China has responded with an effort to simply ignore the court.

October 26, 2015: In the south (Basilan province) police discovered and disabled a large roadside bomb Abu Sayyaf had recently planted. This bomb was on a major road and during the day traffic is heavy.

 

 

 

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