Philippines: The Value Of Uncertainty

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June 29, 2016: President-elect Duterte has apparently discussed his plans with military officials but asked that no details be released until he takes power on July 1 st . This tidbit came out because at the moment the media is full of Abu Sayyaf and piracy news. Abu Sayyaf represents what most Filipinos fear most about granting the Moslem minority in the south autonomy. Duterte is known to be innovative and not afraid to try bold solutions. He has commented that he would try to negotiate, or at least talk to, Abu Sayyaf leaders. If that failed to resolve the terror and banditry problems down there Duterte indicates he would consider declaring martial law in some of the Moslem provinces in the southwest and offer cash rewards for any civilians or security personnel who captured or killed key Abu Sayyaf members. Duterte also has a track record of cracking down on corruption and doing things considered by some as outside the law (and by others as necessary). All this would be necessary to have a chance of finally shutting down the mayhem that has long characterized the Moslem south.


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.
Duterte was elected to bring some real change and he has the reputation and track record indication he could actually do that. Duterte is a lawyer who began his public service as a prosecutor and then became mayor of a major city. He was always known to be quite competent, but very unorthodox and not bothered with breaking laws to do what his constituents wanted. This was made clear during the years he was mayor of Davao City (population 1.5 million) in the southeast. This part of the south is largely Christian with most of the Moslems living 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 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, gangsters and Islamic terrorists was not unusual in the Philippines, especially in the south. So Duterte was able to get away with it. Soon people realized that he maintained control of the death squads but he got away with that because the crime rate plunged after about a thousand accused criminals were murdered. Duterte also cracked down on corruption in general and hired competent economic and business advisors to create an economic boom. Duterte describes himself as a socialist but not anti-business. China, and many Filipinos, see Duterte as likely to produce unpredictable results as president of the country. This could be an opportunity for China, but the Chinese have a traditional aversion to uncertainty. Thus the popular Chinese curse; “may you live in interesting times.”
Duterte has already met with many senior politicians as well as MILF leaders. Duterte is apparently willing to back the autonomy treaty worked out with MILF (and get it approved by Congress) if MILF and Moslems in general can provide tangible help in dealing with the crime, corruption and Islamic terrorism that is so prominent in the south.
Even before Duterte was elected the United States made it clear to China that any efforts to build an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal and install a military base would be resisted with more than diplomatic protests. China has more to worry about than the American military intervention in the South China Sea. The big fear is that this could escalate into a wider scale protest that could do some serious damage to the Chinese economy. Right now China (and everyone else involved) is awaiting a decision from the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding Filipino accusations that China is acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea. The court was supposed to make a ruling this month but this has apparently been delayed. Vigorous Chinese diplomacy may be the reason why, especially since Chinese diplomacy uses lots of unofficial cash and threats. Britain and other Western nations have already announced their belief that the Court of Arbitration ruling would be binding and they would enforce any penalties levied. China cannot ignore that the way it is trying to ignore the court deliberations. The Philippines, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea all openly oppose the Chinese claims. Other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) held back for a while but are now also in open opposition. China is now offering to hold regular talks with the Philippines over these disputes. The Philippines refuses because it does not consider the situation a dispute but rather a case of unwarranted Chinese aggression.
June 24, 2016: China claimed that there were now 47 nations that back Chinese claims in the South China Sea. When pressed for details China admitted that most of these nations would not go public with their support and those few that did were obviously bought and paid for (like land-locked African states that have heavy Chinese economic involvement) and nations like Sri Lanka that depend on China to counterbalance the influence of powerful neighbors (in this case India).
June 22, 2016: In the south (in the Sulu Sea off the south coast) Abu Sayyaf seized an Indonesian tugboat and kidnapped seven (all Indonesians) of the 13 man crew. Al Shabaab is demanding a $5 million ransom. Based on interrogations of the other six crew members (who brought the tugboat back) Abu Sayyaf apparently carried out this attack in cooperation with some criminal gang. This is not usual. This makes 24 Indonesian and Malaysian sailors kidnapped for ransom since last March. Indonesia and Malaysia are putting a lot of pressure on the Philippines to do something about the piracy and threatens to curb seaborne trade with the Philippines if something does not happen soon. Such a ban would hurt the economy in the southern Philippines.
In the southwest (Davao Province) NPA rebels ambushed some local defense volunteers, killing one of them and wounding the other. Troops and other local defense volunteers (who know the rural areas better than most soldiers) went off to find the attackers.
June 21, 2016: In the south (Sulu Province) troops encountered a force of nearly 200 armed Abu Sayyaf members and supporters and after 90 minute battle the Islamic terrorists fled. Three of the Abu Sayyaf men were killed and ten others wounded. The soldiers suffered 16 wounded but went after the fleeing Abu Sayyaf men. The next day four more of the Islamic terrorists were killed and others captured.
June 20, 2016: Some Abu Sayyaf members recently commented that Abu Sayyaf only received 70 percent of the three million dollar ransom paid in April for the release of four Malaysian sailors. Further inquiries revealed that government officials in the Philippines and Malaysia apparently took the other 30 percent as payment for making sure the negotiations and cash transfer happened without any problems. Paying brokers like this is not uncommon when large ransoms are involved. Government officials are not supposed to get any of these broker fees, which usually go to “businessmen” or well-connected but unelected local leaders (like “tribal elders” or “senior clerics.”) Government officials do get involved, quietly, because it is illegal and reeks of corruption and collusion (which it often is). Such “brokerage” arrangements have been uncovered before in the Philippines, where they are illegal.
June 17, 2016: The government revealed that it had sent 5,000 troops (mostly soldiers and marines) south to Sulu province, where Abu Sayyaf is based and is believed to hold its most valuable hostages.
June 15, 2016: Four U.S. Navy EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft arrived in the Philippines to assist in dealing with any Chinese efforts to interfere with American air and ship patrols in South China Sea areas claimed by China.
June 13, 2016: Abu Sayyaf announced that they had, as threatened, murdered the second Canadian hostage they held because ransom was not paid. On May 16th Abu Sayyaf released a video in which they demanded that a $12.9 million ransom be paid by June 13th otherwise they would murder one of the two foreign hostages (a Canadian and a Norwegian) they still held. The video showed the two remaining hostages. Abu Sayyaf also demanded that the government call off its search for the hostages. The government refused to pay or to halt the search. The Philippines forbids the payment of ransoms to Abu Sayyaf, especially multi-million dollar ones (demanded for foreigners) because that kind of money enables the Islamic terrorist group to survive and even expand and kill more people. Abu Sayyaf is notorious for murdering hostages when the demanded ransom is not paid. In some cases this approach works, but mostly it backfires. More Moslem clerics condemn Abu Sayyaf for this, especially this latest murder which occurred during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. Abu Sayyaf justifies all this by insisting they are fighting to protect Islam but given the gangster past of most Abu Sayyaf leaders and members, even the locals don’t believe that (even though they will provide support for Abu Sayyaf in return for some of the ransom cash).
June 12, 2016: 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. China is also creating more artificial islands near Scarborough Shoal and elsewhere in the South China Sea. China station military personnel and weapons on these tiny island fortresses. In preparation for the island building China wants all foreign vessels out of the area.
 

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