Philippines: Whatever It Takes

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January 18, 2017: The war on drugs continues to enjoy popular support in the Philippines despite condemnation from many outside the country. Recent opinion surveys show 85 percent of Filipinos approve of the violent crackdown on illegal drugs but at the same time 78 percent are fearful they, or someone they know, may become a victim of the increased violence. Despite that 89 percent of people have noted a decline in crime since the anti-drug campaign began and find that overall they are safer.

Police have, since the war on drugs began on June 30th, filled the jails to the breaking point with over 45,000 arrested. This effort has killed over 2,250 suspects in the process. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. So far the police have suffered fewer than 122 casualties, mostly wounded but including 38 dead. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over a million people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers.

Opinion polls show that support (63 percent approval) of president Duterte unchanged over the last few months. These are very high rating for a Filipino president. This is more remarkable when you realize that Duterte has made some moves that are not popular with most Filipinos or even many of his key aides and advisors. Chief among these contentious items is trying to work with China while discouraging the U.S. from actively opposing illegal Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Recent polls find that China is still the least liked and trusted nation for most Filipinos. Thus 38 percent of Filipinos trust China compared to 76 percent trusting the United States, 74 trusting the UN and 70 percent Japan. Only half trusted the EU (European Union) and fewer trusted Russia. All this has not hurt presidential popularity because saying nice things about China has led China to pledge nine billion dollars for an ambitious development plan. So far Duterte has gotten $33 billion in loan or aid pledges for this effort. Most (54 percent) of this came from China and Japan. The goal is $140 billion and Duterte has a good chance of getting that much if he can continue to make progress in bringing corrupt officials to justice. The poll numbers seem to show Filipinos appreciate what’s going on here even if a lot of foreign critics don’t. So despite all the nice things Duterte says to China his Defense Minister openly denounces the continued Chinese efforts to build artificial islands in Filipino waters so China can claim the new islands as part of China. Duterte is seen as trying to avoid having a war between China and the United States start so close to the Philippines. Filipino military leaders point out that the U.S. would operate at a disadvantage against Chinese military moves without access to some Filipino bases and that the Philippines would probably be attacked by China no matter what. That happened to many “neutral” countries during World War II and for Chinese territorial expansion to work the Philippines is an obstacle with or without Americans involved. The eventual annexation of the Philippines by China is openly discussed in Chinese media.

Terrorizing Islamic Terrorists

The war on Islamic terrorism in the south continues with growing intensity. The government wants to end the years of Islamic terrorists sustaining themselves through kidnapping and piracy. The president told the military to shut down Abu Sayyaf by mid-year and do whatever was needed to get it done. The president discussed the major problems the security forces have encountered. First there is the ransoms. Military intelligence estimates that Abu Sayyaf took in over a million dollars a month from ransoms during the first six months of 2016 and that the Abu Sayyaf move into piracy off the south coast was based on the need to keep that money coming. Now the military has been ordered to ignore the presence of hostages when attacking or bombing Abu Sayyaf camps. He urged foreign nations to not pay the large ransoms, which have long been illegal in the Philippines. In the meantime foreigners are urged to avoid the southeastern areas of the Philippines, especially Sulu and Basilan, where the kidnappers (mainly Abu Sayyaf) are most active. Without those large and continued infusions of cash the Islamic terrorist activity sharply declines because all that ransom money makes it possible to outlaws like Abu Sayyaf to survive even though local political and religious leaders condemn them. Martial law is also available as an option to ensure that Abu Sayyaf is done by Filipino Independence Day (June 12th). For most of 2016 the government has had 10,000 troops and police carrying out more aggressive operations against Abu Sayyaf and that has caused the Islamic terror group a lot of losses. Since July this has cost the Islamic terrorists nearly 200 men, most of them killed but about a third of them lost to capture, desertion and illness. These non-combat losses are a direct result of the constant pressure. The government has offered to hold peace talks with Abu Sayyaf, but on condition that the Islamic terrorist group cease all kidnapping activity. Abu Sayyaf has made it clear it would never do that because they need the cash to exist. Abu Sayyaf is feeling the pressure and captured members and documents, as well as intercepted messages indicate that the group is burning through their cash faster than expected because of the growing pressure from security forces and pro-government locals. This last group has been growing as local civilians complain about the disruptions in their lives because of the increased efforts to shut down Abu Sayyaf. Some of the locals have been urging Abu Sayyaf to move or do something to give their traditional supporters some relief. Meanwhile a lot of locals are just quietly, often via some discreet (often anonymous) texting to the local military base (local police are less trustworthy) with useful information of Abu Sayyaf activities. This has forced Abu Sayyaf to release some hostages alive, without ransom, when the security forces get too close. This is especially true if the hostages are Moslems, Its’ one thing to execute a foreign kaffir (non-Moslem) but casually slaughtering Moslem captives is not good for the image (of being protectors of Islam). Families of some foreign Moslems held hostage report getting phone calls from the kidnappers (who put their kin on the line to encourage cooperation) offering freedom for much less ransom if they can pay real soon.

The Communist Threat

The government has kept the peace negotiations with the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) going despite persistent demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. The third round of talks begins this week in Rome. The government has about 500 NPA men in prison and has already released (temporarily) 26 NPA men, including two senior leaders. Some NPA leaders are unhappy with how the peace effort is going. The NPA accused the military of violating the August 21st ceasefire by arresting veteran NPA rebels. The military pointed out that these were men who surrendered and brought his weapons with them and that this is part of a trend. These surrenders played a role in persuading NPA leaders to consider a peace treaty. This led to peace talks in Norway in August and progress is being made. But some NPA leaders oppose peace talks and cannot accept the fact that many, if not most, veteran NPA members are fed up. Thus it is no surprise that NPA violence has declined in the last six months and in some areas there have been no incidents since the August 21 ceasefire began.

The Monster Within

There are other internal problems that need attention. The big one is corruption and its many side effects. One of the most corrupted institutions is the Filipino justice system. Even under the best of conditions it is remarkably inefficient. Many cases take years to reach a conclusion and many suspects cannot post bail and remain in jail while waiting. Wealthy suspects can still afford to delay prosecution or bribe their way out of a conviction. To that end the president is proposing suspending constitutional guarantees of due process. A lot of law-abiding Filipinos oppose this but without judicial reforms (which take a long time) or more prisons (which require money the government has not got) the war on drugs is going to stall because of the problems with prosecuting those arrested. Another side effect of the war on drugs is that criminal gangs, faced with reduced supplies of drugs are turning to other crimes, like kidnapping. That has not replaced the lost drug revenue and does not impact most Filipinos (only those who can pay a ransom) but the gangs will keep seeking new sources of revenue. Finally while the use of vigilantes and a “shoot on sight, shoot to kill” attitude most of the two million drug users in the country are looking for help in quitting but the help isn’t there and never was. The country can’t afford it. This use of widespread violence to halt drug use and dealing has been used before (in China in the 1950s, Afghanistan in the late 1990s and so on) and seems to work for a while but the drug use eventually returns.

January 10, 2017: In the south (Jolo Island) Abu Sayyaf released one of their foreign captives. a South Korea ship captain they had kidnapped last October. Also released was one the Filipino crewmen taken from the ship along with the South Korean. Apparently some ransom was paid, but a lot less than the $10 million demanded.

January 9, 2017: In the south (Mindanao province) a fishing boat was attacked near Zamboanga City and eight of the 15 man crew were killed. It turned out that this was a feud between two coastal clans, not another Islamic terrorist pirate attack.

January 8, 2017: In the south (Basilan) an army officer was killed, and four of his soldiers wounded, during a nine hour long running battle with a group of over fifty Abu Sayyaf members. The Special Forces officer was the first military fatality of the year.

January 5, 2017: In the south (Sarangani province) troops killed Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, the elusive leader of the AKP (Ansar Khilafa Philippines). Three other AKP men were captured. AKP is another (rather tiny) Islamic terrorist group that is allied with Abu Sayyaf and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The AKP leader was dangerous because of the size of the AKP but because he was an expert bomb designer and builder who was training others. Intel has noted similarities in some of Islamic terrorist bombs used indicating better quality bombs were being used and that all these improved bomb designs appeared to come from the same bomb builder. Maguid was eventually identified as the master bomb builder and for most of the past year security forces in the south concentrated on finding him. They came close several times but Maguid proved capable of evading detection until he wasn’t.

January 1, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) soldiers repulsed BIFF attacks on three of their bases, killing four of the attackers and wounding another four. This sort of thing has been going on in Maguindanao for several months and pro-government MILF fighters have worked with the military to shut down ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists trying to establish themselves in the area. Locals bsay these Islamic terrorists as the ones responsible for a growing number of crimes in the area. The most active of these ISIL affiliates is the Maute Group. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have concentrated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. Together these two factions have fewer than a hundred active members left. Abu Sayyaf by contrast may still have as many as 300 active members. Maute was founded in 2013 by dissident MILF members who did not want peace with the government and preferred to keep fighting. By 2015 Maute had made little progress and decided to proclaim itself part of ISIL. Since then Maute became more violent and threatening. At the start of 2016 Maute had nearly 200 members. Maute has suffered heavy losses this year in part because MILF got fed up with them and quietly helped the security forces with information on exactly who and where Maute was. Meanwhile Maute found that that behaving like ISIL did not help with recruiting and fundraising but just brought more pressure on them. Since November over 70 Manute members have been killed or captured. BIFF has tried to keep up but has not been as ruthless and reckless as Manute.

December 28, 2016: In the south (North Cotabato province) MILF appears to have made progress in stopping a clan war that involves members of MILF. Skirmishing over the last three weeks has left 17 dead and dozens wounded. Hundreds of families have fled their homes to avoid the violence. Clan wars continue to be a major problem in the south, where they have been endemic for centuries. MILF was originally created decades ago as a means for all clans to unite to obtain autonomy for the Moslem south and thus better govern themselves. The autonomy deal was obtained but the chaos remains. The clan divisions have become more prominent in MILF politics and that was what was involved in the recent North Cotabato violence.

December 27, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga City) police raided a local hospital and arrested Hairulla Asbang, a wanted Abu Sayyaf leader and his bodyguard. Asbang was trying to get medical care without his identity being discovered. Asbang had been badly wounded in a recent clash with security forces and was using bribes and other methods to get required medical care. That approach has long worked but not so much anymore.

December 20, 2016: In the south (off Sulu Island) a Filipino fishing boat was found with its four man crew missing. Apparently the crew had been kidnapped and held for ransom.

 

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