Philippines: China Plays Nice While Being Played

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October 17, 2016: President Rodrigo Duterte wants to do business with China and has invited a Chinese trade delegation to come visit. China has also expressed willingness to help with the Filipino anti-drug campaign. China has always been hostile to illegal drugs and was the first country to pass laws (in the 18 th century) against illegal use of opium. Then, as now, it was affluence (China had the largest economy on the planet back then) and willing suppliers (tribes across the border in Burma that cultivated poppies and exported the opium) that caused that first “drug epidemic” and China has never lost its enthusiasm for making life difficult for drug producers and distributors. Chinese cooperation can be useful because China is the largest market for regional producers of traditional (opium, heroin, hashish) and artificial (meth, Ecstasy and other new synthetics) drugs. What China knows about producers and distributors can be useful to the Philippines, which is a much smaller market but also a waypoint for drug smugglers moving product south and east. China also has a lot of experience with drug rehabilitation and has offered to build a large rehab center and help train the staff in Chinese methods.

China also expressed a willingness to negotiate a settlement to territorial disputes. This may prove difficult because Duterte pays attention to public opinion and most Filipinos are not willing to surrender fishing rights to most of the traditional fishing areas off their west coast. Duterte recently (September) pointed out that continuing Chinese efforts to create artificial islands on Scarborough Shoal (then build a military base and dare anyone to attack it) threatened maritime trade for the entire region and could start a major war. Until September Duterte had been taking a more conciliatory approach to the Chinese and apparently that did not work. Filipino fishermen have long worked the waters around Scarborough Shoal and thought that the July 12th decision by the internationally recognized PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) would change things. The PCA backed Filipino accusations that China was acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea and that it was illegal for China to build artificial islands and claim them as Chinese territory. While this court decision was a major disappointment China promptly reminded everyone that it always said it would not recognize any decision by the PCA threatens to use force to protect its claims in the South China Sea.

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 illegal activity by Chinese ships. In June, just before Duterte took office, 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. Chinese coast guard ships visit Scarborough Shoal more frequently and apparently with orders to force foreign vessels, especially fishing boats, 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 visitors (fishermen or political activists) are mistreated.

President Duterte proposed that American troops (mainly Special Forces and intelligence experts) operating in the southern Philippines be sent home. Since that suggestion was made in early September there has been a lot of pushback from active and retired military and police commanders with experience working with U.S. forces, especially those that have been helping fight Islamic terrorists since 2002. Most of this opposition is about the less visible aspects of American help. The U.S. monitors Islamic terrorists worldwide, because the most dangerous groups, like al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are international. The terrorists move around and one of the problems with Abu Sayyaf in the south is that they had helped create a refuge for foreign Islamic terrorists, who provided expertise in return for sanctuary. Thus all the terror bombings the Philippines experienced since 2001 could be traced to foreign Islamic terrorists showing Filipino Islamic terrorists how to build and use these bombs more effectively. The Americans also share their expertise, which the U.S. has been doing for decades. Despite that Duterte also said he would not conduct joint patrols with American forces in the South China Sea and was seeking less expensive weapons suppliers in China and Russia. Duterte also expressed a willingness to negotiate with China regarding Chinese claims on Filipino territory in the South China Sea. On that last point opinion polls show little popularity for that and experts on the Filipino constitution point out it is probably illegal to simply surrender or give away Filipino territory like that. Duterte acknowledged all that and pointed out that there was nothing illegal in discussing the matter with China.

October 16, 2016: In the Persian Gulf Abu Dhabi police arrested Rolan Eslabon Espinosa, the second most wanted criminal in the Philippines and boss of the largest drug operation in the south. Espinosa, like many other drug gang leaders, quietly left the country shortly after Duterte took power. Espinosa was a major drug gang leader in the southern Philippines and he knew how Duterte had cracked down on drug gangs in Davao City (in the southeast). Espinosa had left the Philippines on June 21st and using a fake (but authentic) passport he showed up in Dubai (the main city of Abu Dhabi) on August 1st using another name. Someone (possibly one of the many Filipinos working in the Persian Gulf) recognized him from a picture of him on the local news and informed the police who made the arrest today after having contacted Filipino police to confirm the ID. Filipino police are on their way to bring Espinosa back to be indicted and tried.

October 14, 2016: President Duterte has been in power a hundred days and the government released data on anti-crime efforts during that period. The military reported they had carried out 579 major operations, 73 percent them in the southwest (Sulu province) against Abu Sayyaf. That resulted in 54 violent encounters that cost Abu Sayyaf 94 men (60 percent killed the rest disabled, captured or surrendered). Another 7.6 percent of operations were also in the south (mainly Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) against rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. Together these two factions have about a hundred active members left after recent clashes with the military cost them at least fifty members. Abu Sayyaf may still have as many as 400 active members. The military has also been used in the new anti-drug campaign and has so far arrested 191 people suspected of dealing drugs, in addition to killing eight and causing 689 to surrender.

Police reported that in the last 100 days they visited over two million homes and businesses searching for drug suspects and made 28,410 arrests and killed 1,578 suspects who violently resisted. This led to 13 police killed and 40 wounded. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused 750,000 people to turn themselves in. Seven percent admitted they had been distributing drugs while all the others were users, many willing to provide information about their suppliers. In addition it is believed at least another thousand murders were connected to the crackdown on the drug business. Most of these involved drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. The anti-drug campaign has caused chaos among most of the gangs involved in producing and distributing illegal drugs. Opinion polls show 76 percent of Filipinos approve of Duterte, which is a very high rating for a Filipino president.

October 9, 2016: In the north (170 kilometers south of the capital) police caught up with a pair of assassins on a motorcycle after they had murdered a woman outside her home. Police shot and wounded the two killers and arrested them only to find that both were local police commanders. Both are awaiting trial for murder and attempted murder (they fired back at the pursuing police). Catching and punishing corrupt cops is popular but is a persistent and difficult problem to eliminate. For example b ack in 2008 the army and national police were cracking down on corruption and sloppiness. A lot more readiness inspections, and investigations were taking place. Dozens of corrupt police were being fired each month and soldiers of all ranks were charged with corruption or incompetence. That crackdown did not last and only reduced the problems for a while. Despite that reformers have pushed for this a massive and sustained effort and now they may have some momentum.

October 8, 2016: In the north (Manila) police arrested Amin Aklam, a Malaysian Islamic terrorist who has been working with Abu Sayyaf since 2011. Malaysian security officials believe that Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists based in the Philippines are a greater threat than Malaysian based ones. This assessment comes in the wake of several arrests of ISIL members in Malaysia during 2015. Malaysia has shown it is able to deal with local recruits for Islamic terrorist groups, including ISIL, the current favorite among young Moslems determined to be bad.

Abu Sayyaf is another story and for over a decade these Filipino Islamic terrorists have been crossing the Sulu Sea at night to carry out attacks in nearby Malaysia, usually Sabah. Small speedboats can make it across the Sulu Sea to Sabah quickly because some of the smaller Filipino islands are less than 20 kilometers from Sabah. Recently there have been Abu Sayyaf attacks on ships off the Sabah coast. The most recent raid in Sabah took place in 2014 leaving one Malaysian policeman dead and another kidnapped.

The worst incident occurred in in 2000 when Abu Sayyaf took 21 people from a Sabah vacation resort. Most of those hostages were released within five months once large ransoms were paid. After that incident security was increased on both sides of the Sulu Sea and foreign tourists soon began returning to the Malaysian resorts. Filipino and Malaysian patrol boats now monitor this patch of sea but at night and in bad weather a couple of small speedboats are easy to miss. Security was increased again after the 2014 attack because tourist business always suffer when Abu Sayyaf makes an attack in any part of Sabah. Although the 2014 attack failed to reach any tourists, it was not good for business and Malaysia is pressing the Philippines to do more to stop this sort of cross border crime. Abu Sayyaf has, for years, sustained itself off kidnap ransoms. Foreigners are preferred but failing that Abu Sayyaf will take locals for much lower ransoms. Abu Sayyaf are the most experienced and persistent Islamic terrorists in the region which is why Malaysia considers them a bigger threat.

October 7, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga City) police arrested Abdul-latip Suwaling Talanghari and an associate. Talanghari is a known Abu Sayyaf leader and the government has a $100,000 bounty on him. Talanghari normally operates from a hideout on Sulu Island, 150 kilometers to the southwest. He was apparently in Zamboanga City to lead terror attacks against upcoming Catholic religious celebrations. Police got tips about this possibility. Over 60 percent of the 860,000 Zamboanga City residents are Catholic. The two Abu Sayyaf men had firearms and bombs in their hideout. These terror attacks were another effort to entice the military to ease up on the efforts to eliminate Abu Sayyaf bases in Sulu province.

The Filipino Defense Ministry informed the United States that planned joint naval patrols of the South China Sea were temporarily on hold.

October 4, 2016: In the south (Cotabato city) soldiers captured three men on a motorcycle who tried to evade a checkpoint. The three were found to be members of Maute Group and had with them two firearms, bomb components and a cell phone video of the September 2nd bombing in Davao city. That video had not been seen before and was apparently meant to be put on the Internet eventually to prove that Maute Group carried out this attack. Further investigation revealed that one of those arrested planted the Davao city bomb and this attack was apparently carried out in an effort to get ISIL to formally recognize Maute Group as a part of ISIL.

October 1, 2016: Abu Sayyaf released three of the five Indonesian sailors they were holding for ransom in Sulu province.

September 27, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) police found and sought to arrest two members of the KFRG (Kidnap For Ransom Group) gang. The two men (the Muktadil brothers) were known and armed. They were killed in a brief gun battle. KFRG was known to work closely with Abu Sayyaf on kidnapping operations. KFRG provided information on likely victims (ones whose families could and would pay) and helped with ransom negotiations. KFRG apparently provided the information about who to kidnap at sea and also provided experienced navigators to get the Abu Sayyaf gunmen to the ships to be attacked. KFRG has been linked to kidnappings involving 26 Malaysian and Indonesian sailors.

September 24, 2016: In the south (Mindanao) police confiscated $125,000 worth of expensive military weapons (M203 grenade launchers, M14 and M16 rifles) and ammo for them. This occurred during a raid to arrest four known criminals. It turned out the weapons and ammo had been stolen from a government warehouse and sold to Abu Sayyaf.

September 23, 2016: In the south (Basilan province) twenty Abu Sayyaf members surrendered and many brought their weapons along. Abu Sayyaf has become less popular in Sulu, Jolo and Basilan mainly because the group has less ransom money to pass around. Then there is the years of increased army and police activity as well as increasingly violent acts (like beheading foreign captives) by Abu Sayyaf which make the region look bad.

September 22, 2016: In the south (Jolo Island) Abu Sayyaf released one of the six Indonesian sailors they have been holding for nearly two months. Ransom was apparently paid but probably a lot less than Abu Sayyaf wanted. That’s because Indonesia has made unspecified threats to Abu Sayyaf and the Filipino government has said it might permit Indonesian anti-terrorism commands to come to areas where Abu Sayyaf operates and help find hostages. These Indonesian operatives have a reputation for effectiveness, which is why so many Indonesian Islamic terrorists have fled to the Philippines.

September 21, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga del Norte province) Abu Sayyaf kidnappers abandoned a 70 year old woman they had taken two days earlier. The woman had fainted during the long walk she was forced to endure by her captors. The Abu Sayyaf thought their elderly captive (a local business owner) had a stroke and left her for dead. She regained consciousness and contacted local police.

 

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