Philippines: The Chinese Unofficial Deal

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March 17, 2017: Since the March 6 th resumption of the crackdown on illegal drugs there has been a lot less violence. The revived war on drugs limits the number of police involved to those who have already been screened and known to be uncorrupt. So far the revised anti-drug tactics have led to about 75 percent fewer arrests per week and 84 percent fewer deaths. Part of that is due to the fact that so many known drug gang members were arrested or killed during the first seven months of the operation. It will take another month or so to determine if the new approach is continuing to reduce the distribution and use of illegal drugs. The initial campaign certainly reduced crime.

The war on drugs was suspended on January 30th because of an expanding investigation of police corruption, especially of police involved in anti-drug operations. Since the anti-drug campaign began in July 2016 to the end of January 2,512 suspects were killed. During that time there were 51,882 arrests during 42,798 police investigations. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted arrest or searches but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over 1.1 million people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly all were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers. So far the police and military have suffered fewer than 120 casualties, mostly wounded but including 38 dead.

The war on drugs was accompanied by a less visible effort to deal with police corruption. While recent opinion surveys showed 85 percent of Filipinos approve of the violent crackdown on illegal drugs at the same time 78 percent were fearful they, or someone they know, may become a victim of the increased violence. This unease was based on the growing instances of corrupt cops using their new “license to kill” for personal gain. The fear became headline news when a group of corrupt cops were arrested in January for kidnapping and murdering a wealthy South Korean. Months of looking into police corruption had uncovered much evidence that has resulted in a growing number of police being dismissed or indicted.

President Rodrigo Duterte took officer in mid-2016 and admitted that he got elected because he had demonstrated as a mayor of a large city that radical solutions can work. Duterte said he would eliminate drug crime (including addiction) and the related corruption. Most Filipinos know that complete eradication is unlikely but that other countries in the region have managed to greatly reduce drug use and related criminal activity. Nearby Singapore is the best example but Singapore has never been as ethnically and culturally diverse as the Philippines nor did it have a century’s long tradition of corruption and widespread criminality. Still, most other nations in the region have less crime and drug addiction and most Filipinos see progress as a possibility. Duterte is responding to the widespread feeling that some kind of radical solution is needed. Duterte apparently realizes that he has a short period of time to make some fundamental changes before public enthusiasm wanes and his powerful opponents (major drug gangs and corrupt senior politicians and bureaucrats) get organized. He apparently sees the recent police corruption revelations as an opportunity. Catching and punishing corrupt cops is popular but the corruption is a persistent and difficult problem to eliminate. For example back 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 gain the expected momentum and only reduced the problems a bit. Despite that the anti-corruption investigations continued and even increased when the new president took power in mid-2016. Reformers have pushed for a massive and sustained effort and now they may have some momentum.

Islamic Terrorism Backfires

In the southeast (Sulu and Basilan) the search continues for Abu Sayyaf factions that are holding 25 kidnapping victims, including 19 foreigners (Malaysians, Indonesians and Vietnamese ) and six Filipinos for ransom. The search down there has been more energetic in the last year because of Abu Sayyaf has turned to piracy and kidnapping crews from ships belonging to neighboring countries. This has brought demands that this sort of thing cease or else there would be economic repercussions. There is a lot of trade between southern Philippines and neighboring nations and interfering with that would cause much hardship in the Philippines and neighboring countries. That got the attention of many Moslem leaders in the south. There were other incentives to help destroy Abu Sayyaf. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is trying to establish a larger presence in the Philippines and so far has over 500 local followers. Most of them belong to Abu Sayyaf but about a hundred are from what is left of the Manute and BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) groups. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have cooperated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. Abu Sayyaf by contrast may still have as many as 400 active members. BIFF has tried to keep up but has not been as ruthless and reckless as Manute. The actions of Manute forced the larger Moslem separatist groups MNLF and MILF to crack down on Moslems who work with the Islamic terrorists. Now Abu Sayyaf is considered unworthy of local support by the Moslem community and the Abu Sayyaf leaders know that is the worst thing that could happen to them.

The Incredible Divided Communist Threat

Until February 4th the government kept the peace negotiations with the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) going despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. For most of February the army and police were ordered to exert maximum pressure on the NPA and that apparently worked because the operations concentrated on the NPA groups known to be hostile to a peace deal. The third round of peace talks took place in early January and were not a success mainly because too many NPA factions refuse to make peace and by the end of January the ceasefire was over because of many attacks by these factions. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will resume its efforts to destroy the leftist rebel group. Peace talks got started in Norway during August 2016 and some progress was made. But it became obvious that many NPA leaders opposed peace talks and could not accept the fact that many, if not most, veteran NPA members were fed up with their career of banditry. Thus it is no surprise that NPA violence declined since the ceasefire began and in some areas there have been no incidents since the August 21 ceasefire began. But for a minority of NPA members peace is not seen as a solution.

China Offers A Taste

China continues to insist the South China Sea areas it has seized from the Philippines and others now belongs to China and it is best to take whatever China offers than to try and fight back. That appears to be working with the Philippines. Recently China announced that it is building an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) it is Filipino. The Chinese say they have prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century this mainly meant adjacent land areas. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well.

Most Filipinos are willing to fight but president Duterte has recently made deals with China that will allow Filipino farmers to sell nearly two billion dollars’ worth of farm products in China over the next year. In addition China will finance over $3 billion in infrastructure projects in the Philippines with work to begin this this year. Also being negotiated is a six hear trade and development deal.

Duterte has not abandoned Filipino claims on the contested territory but has given China vague assurances that he would expel the Americans and support Chinese claims. The Chinese appeared reluctant to “pay” for this at first but soon changed their minds despite fears that Duterte is playing them. The Chinese realized that Duterte dares not go against the will of his people and military advisors. 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 take place 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. Despite all this Duterte believes China will pay well for a few kind words. That’s how Chinese diplomacy has been conducted since antiquity.

March 16, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) four days of using artillery and mortars to hit remote areas where BIFF members are at least ten of the Islamic terrorists were killed and several of the wounded were carried away to a new hiding place. Some this information comes from fleeing civilians. Over a thousand local villagers have fled their homes to escape the fighting. The army showed up here because they had learned that Zulkifli bin Hir, an Indonesian Islamic terrorist bomb expert was present with a small group of BIFF men he was training in a series of temporary camps. BIFF has been on the run since it was formed in 2011 after splitting from MILF. There is a $500,000 reward for information that leads to the death or capture of Hir and that has been attracting a growing number of tips from the remote areas around here.

March 15, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) the army confirmed that Abu Sayyaf had killed one of the six Vietnamese crewmen they had taken from a freighter in February. Troops are searching Sulu and Tawi-Tawi Islands for the remaining Vietnamese captives as well as about twenty other people Abu Sayyaf is holding.

March 6, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) another known Abu Sayyaf leader, and four of his followers, were killed during an encounter with soldiers.

The nationwide crackdown on illegal drugs resumed after having been suspended on January 30th because of police corruption problems.

March 5, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) four Abu Sayyaf men were killed during a pre-dawn clash with marines.

March 4, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) troops found the headless body of German hostage Juergen Gustav Kantner. So far this month Abu Sayyaf has lost 16 men killed, at least six wounded and four arrested. The army suffered 24 wounded.

In mid-February Abu Sayyaf released a video threatening to kill their German hostage if a ransom of $600,000 were not paid by the 26th. That’s about 90 percent less than is usually demanded for foreigners but Abu Sayyaf is desperate and this particular German has not got a lot of popular support back in Germany (that’s another story).

March 2, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) soldiers and marines located a large (over a hundred gunmen) group of Abu Sayyaf led by Radullah Sahiron, a senior (and well known) Abu Sayyaf commander. Clashes with this group over the next week led to over fifty casualties, mostly among the fleeing Islamic terrorists. This large group gradually dispersed to avoid destruction. The military had helicopters and UAVs constantly watching the area and a large group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen were easy to track.

February 27, 2017: The army revealed that since they launched a major offensive (36 separate operations) against the NPA in the south (Agusan del Sur and Davao Oriental provinces) the leftist rebels have suffered 14 dead, 17 captured and 51 voluntarily surrendered. There have been about two clashes a day since February 4th and that has left seven soldiers dead and 30 wounded. The soldiers are also seeking to locate and free six NPA prisoners (three soldiers, two policeman and a civilian).

February 26, 2017: Abu Sayyaf beheaded their German hostage because the ransom was not paid. The killing was recorded and the video posted on the Internet. The government ordered the military to continue the search for the Abu Sayyaf group responsible.

February 24, 2017: In the south (Lanao del Norte province) police killed two Islamic terrorists belonging to the Manute Group and arrested another.

February 19, 2017: In the south (in the Sulu Sea off the south coast) Abu Sayyaf seized a Vietnamese freighter, killing one crewman while doing so. The Islamic terrorists took whatever valuable portable items they could find and then left with six senior crew members as hostages. Filipino police and coast guard showed up a little later and released the other 17 crew and had the ship moved to an anchorage off nearby Tawi-Tawi Island so police could search the ship. Abu Sayyaf will quietly contact the ship owner to demand ransom. That is illegal in the Philippines but foreign government can quietly pay to get their citizens freed.

 

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