The government “war on drugs” has left at least 13,000 dead in the 15 months until it was halted in early October. It did serious damage to the drug gangs and left a lot of innocent bystanders dead. President Duterte ignores foreign critics in large part because the majority (about 70 percent) of Filipino voters still support the anti-drug effort. Voters are less pleased with the relative lack of progress in reducing corruption. Duterte said the drug problems were connected with a lot of the corruption but it turned out that the corruption was more difficult to reduce than drug use or Islamic terrorist violence. The economy is still growing and one reason for making a deal with China over the South China Sea was the prospect of huge Chinese investments. Corruption reduction is a longer term effort but it is next up on the agenda with the crippling of the Islamic terrorist groups in the south and the collapse of the local communist (NPA) rebels.
China appears to have succeeded in buying cooperation from the Philippines. The Filipino government is willing to accept all the legal gifts (aid, investment, loans) China offers in return for the Philippines not resisting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. President Duterte pointed out earlier in 2017 that China threatened war if the Philippines went ahead with plans to drill for oil in offshore areas that international law recognizes as Filipino but that China claims actually belongs to them. Duterte openly criticizes other nations for not confronting China and sees no point in the Philippines trying to take on China by itself or at least not without a massive amount of support. All the South China Sea nations facing territorial losses because of Chinese claims have backed down to one degree or another. Duterte points out that even the United States is unwilling to go up against China and recent meetings with the new American president made it clear that the main threat to the U.S. from the region right now was North Korea, not China.
Meanwhile the Chinese are openly moving more weapons to bases in the South China Sea as well as their main naval base in southern China (Hainan Island). Chinese officials admit that they are determined to get their way in the South China Sea but it is also the case that China prefers to buy what it wants rather than start a war over it. That is an ancient Chinese tradition that is currently giving a lot of popular and official support inside China.
In the last few months details of earlier Filipino discussions with China became public and there was no public uproar about “selling” China large swaths of Filipino territory where no Filipinos actually live. The Chinese see continued opposition by many Filipinos as something that can be fixed by increasing the goodies offered and threats made. But some Filipinos see China as yet another conqueror, not much different from the Spanish or the Japanese. The Americans threw the Spanish out in 1898 but soon agreed to get out themselves and did so right after World War II, a year late because of the Japanese occupation. The Filipinos remember that and fear that the Chinese might behave much like the Japanese (as in brutally and with no intention to leave voluntarily). Some Chinese officials have mentioned ancient Chinese claims to the main Philippines Islands and it is up to the Chinese to convince the fearful Filipinos that this deal will work in the long term and not turn into another foreign conquest and occupation.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)
ISIL and the Maute Group (a radical MILF faction that opposes the peace treaty MILF negotiated) are continuing to recruit. They are offering joining bonuses of from $390 to $980 to recruits, depending on their skills. Monthly pay and other bonuses are available. Most Filipinos believe Islamic terror groups like Maute and ISIL are receiving financial support from drug gangs in return for help with security and because the anti-drug campaign begun in 2016 has done major damage to the drug gangs and this is seen as the best way to fight back.
The largest ISIL faction in Marawi City was from the Maute Group who unexpectedly brought in hundreds of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death and triggered an existing plan to gather in Marawi City to inspire local Moslems to rise up and drive out Christians. The Maute family is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south and seven Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and now ISIL. The battle began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated unexpectedly. As the fighting went on there were efforts to end what quickly turned into dead (literally) end for the ISIL fighters. MILF refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. Some Islamic clerics visited the city during the battle and urged the Islamic terrorists to stop fighting. That failed. The government demanded that the Islamic terrorists in the city surrender or die. Some surrendered, most died and few escaped.
By late October many of the troops concentrated in and around Marawi City were being sent to other areas in the south where there was still Islamic terrorist activity. The Maute Group was nearly wiped out in Marawi City and all seven of the Maute brothers (who formed the core leadership) are now dead. ISIL is trying to take the lead in rebuilding Islamic terror manpower in the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf still have supporters in parts of Sulu and Basilan province but they are taking a lot of losses they are unable to replace. The army and police are trying to take advantage of this but have noted that the Islamic terrorists still active are more dangerous and troops are cautioned to be careful going after these veteran fighters.
Communist Rebels Divide And Fall
The leftist (communist) NPA rebels continue fighting, but less effectively because they have suffered heavy losses this year and, worse, have split into several factions. There is no one who can accurately represent NPA to resume negotiations with to work out a peace deal. The government has responded by ordering the security forces to concentrate on NPA and shut them down. That was delayed a bit to concentrate forces to handle the Marawi City situation. But since late October many troops and police assigned to Marawi City have been ordered to concentrate on remaining Islamic and communist rebel factions.
One result of the NPA peace negotiations collapse and the internal divisions this year was more NPA members surrendering or deserting the organization. Over the last few months many NPA members who surrendered provided information indicating that losses from desertion were more than twice what the government was reporting. In addition there are medical losses as well as fewer new recruits. Those losses increased during October and judging from the reduced presence of NPA in areas they have long terrorized it is having quite an impact. There are still a few factions willing to fight on but they are facing more armed resistance (especially from local defense groups) and less popular support. So far this year, and especially since peace talks collapsed on February 4th over 650 NPA rebels have surrendered, been captured killed or known to have deserted (and are sometimes being sought to major crimes). In many arears where the NPA has long operated the locals have come to view the NPA as bandits and turned against them.
November 15, 2017: in the south (Maguindanao province) troops disrupted a planned attack by a groups of BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) gunmen assembling outside a rural village. BIFF has been on the run since it was formed in 2011 (by splitting from MILF). 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. That effort has prevented both groups from growing a lot larger but has not eliminated them. Maute considers itself a part of ISIL while BIFF is mainly anti-Christian and wants to drive the Christians out of the south (where Christians are a majority of the population). MILF has been more active in going after these new ISIL sighting in part because MILF knows BIFF and Maute are getting their new recruits from the younger and more radical MILF members and if these ISIL factions are not put down quickly they threaten to evolve into a MILF civil war. That would not be unusual as such religion based private wars have been common in this part of the Philippines before the Spanish or Americans arrived. MILF is asking the government for military aid and more visible movement on getting the autonomy law through the legislature. The government is cooperating but also quietly reminding MILF leaders that all this is a test of whether or not MILF can actually govern in the Moslem south.
China donated $22 million to help rebuild Marawi and loaned the government over $200 million for infrastructure projects. China is also helping with drug addict rehabilitation. More such generosity is forthcoming if the Philippines backs off on resisting Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
November 14, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) marines raided a small island to search a suspected Abu Sayyaf camp. The Islamic terrorists had fled but the four Vietnamese sailors kidnapped in February were found. One had died of an illness but the other three were OK. No ransom was paid which meant Abu Sayyaf lost another large payday. Elsewhere in Sulu province another group of Abu Sayyaf kidnapped six civilians (including two children) to use as human shields against pursuing troops. Such captives are usually released when no longer needed and not held for ransom.
Elsewhere in the south (Basilan province) an army patrol was ambushed by a large group of Abu Sayyaf. The troops fought back and were reinforced. Six soldiers were killed and four wounded. The Abu Sayyaf men withdrew and took their dead and wounded with them. Pursuing troops noted that there were a lot of blood trails.
November 13, 2017: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) troops followed up on reports that many Islamic terrorists who had escaped the fighting in Marawi City (the capital of Lanao del Sur province) fled past Lake Lanao (the largest and deepest lake in the south) and tossed their weapons into the lake hoping to return later and retrieve them. Troops searched areas locals indicated and soon found more than 30 recently submerged firearms including a 12.7mm machine gun, three 7.62mm M60 machine guns, four 12.7mm sniper rifles, and a large variety of assault rifles plus an M79 40mm grenade launcher.
November 11, 2017: The leaders of China and the Philippines met and agreed to settle the South China Sea disputes via negotiations. In other words the Philippines is willing to discuss how much China will pay the Philippines in order to settle this matter. The Chinese may seek more than just the Philippines abandoning disputed islands. China could ask the Philippines to abandon military alliances with the United States and other nations in the region that have disputes with China. That would cost China a lot more and might be impossible to get approved by the Filipino legislature.
Japan agreed to build four radar stations in the south (Sulu province) to provide better surveillance of the open waters between the Philippines and Indonesia. There were three pirate attacks in this area during the first six months of 2017. All of these resulted in some of the crew being killed or kidnapped. There were also four failed piracy attempts in this area. Japan is donating the radar stations along with training for the Filipino coast guard personnel who will operate them. A large number of Japanese merchant ships move through this area but most of the maritime traffic is from local nations. The radar stations will make it much more difficult for the pirates to operate. This comes after the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to joint and air naval patrols and sharing information between their land-based radars.
November 10, 2017: In the north (Quezon City) police arrested three Abu Sayyaf men who were apparently scouting the area for an attack during the bi-annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) conference being held in Manila this year. The conference begins today and ends on the 14th. The police kept this arrest secret for a week while the suspects were questioned and anything learned could be used to avoid an attack. This worked (stockpiles of weapons were seized) and the three arrested men were presented in a press conference on the 17th. The three were caught in part because of good intelligence work, surveillance and the mass of information on Abu Sayyaf and ISIL operations collected in the south over the last five months because of the fighting in Marawi City.
November 5, 2017: Down south in Marawi City security forces cornered and killed eleven Islamic terrorists over the last two days. These are believed to be the last of the ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists who had assembled for a “final battle” in the port area of the city. The government declared the five month battle for Marawi City over in mid-October but warned that security forces would continue searching for “stragglers”. It is believed that over 900 Islamic terrorists were killed during the fighting. Rubble is still being searched for any more ISIL dead. The security forces lost 165 dead and 47 civilians died as well. Over 200,000 civilians fled their homes during the fighting but many have now returned. While the local population was unhappy with how long the fighting took they have not turned against the government (which emphasized minimizing casualties among civilians and troops) and there has been a continuous flow of tips and other information about the Islamic terrorists in the city, including the few still believed to be alive.
October 23, 2017: In the north (Valenzuela City, outside Manila) police arrested Aminkisa Romato Macadato, who handled most of the Maute Group finances and weapons procurement. Macadato had links to many large criminal gangs that are now financing the rebuilding of ISIL and the Maute Group.