While the army killed or captured about 600 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members during 2017, ISIL is not dead in the south. Because most of the ISIL violence took place in the south (Mindanao) the legislature extended martial law down there until the end of 2018. During 2017 about half the ISIL dead were from Abu Sayyaf and the rest from BIFF and the Maute Group. But now ISIL survivors from Syria and Iraq are returning and along with new recruits (often from the families of those killed in 2017) ISIL is rebuilding. There are believed to be nearly a hundred ISIL members in Mindanao, nearly half returned from the Middle East, and the security forces want to ensure that the group does not get large enough to be a major problem.
The government is ready to fly home 10,000 or more of the 250,000 Filipinos working in Kuwait after the body of a Filipino woman was found in a freezer. There have been a growing number of incidents of mistreatment of Filipino workers in Kuwait and this murder made all of that widely known. The Filipino government had banned any more Filipinos from going to Kuwait in January because of the rampant abuse. The government is making an issue of the fact that Kuwaiti police did nothing when the family of the victim reported their daughter missing. So far about a thousand Filipinos have accepted the government offer and flown home. The Kuwaiti position is that the Filipino government is exaggerating.
There are two million Filipinos working in the Middle East. Filipinos are treated badly in the Middle East because most of them are Christian. That disdain (and cruelty) is what was at play in the recent murder. The killers were a couple from Lebanon (the husband) and Syria (the wife). In this case it was apparently the wife who was the main antagonist. The couple fled to Syria months ago, in part because Syria does not have an extradition treaty with Kuwait and Lebanon does.
Remittances from the ten percent of Filipinos who work overseas amounts to about five percent of GDP and are a key part of the economy. In effect, over 20 percent of the Filipino workforce is employed outside the Philippines. Filipinos are very popular overseas workers because of their energy, skills and ability to speak English. There are no jobs at home for all this talent because of the corruption (the Philippines is among the ten most corrupt nations) that stifles economic growth.
In part because Moslem separatist organizations MILF and MNLF cooperated in eliminating any ISIL activity in the Moslem south Congress is now willing to pass the controversial BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) in the next few months. It wasn’t just the Moslem willingness to suppress ISIL but also the cooperation between the two former rival organizations. For example, in early 2017 MILF agreed to combine its 2014 peace deal with the government with the 1996 peace agreement rival MNLF signed with the government. This settled several disagreements the two major Moslem organizations had to deal with. The two groups had originally disagreed over who would have what powers under the new autonomy deal. MILF has been pressuring Congress to either pass or reject the peace deal. If approved BBL creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. It was not surprising that this new law would be difficult to get through the national legislature. It was always understood that because of the 2016 elections the treaty would have an opportunity to try getting approval from two different Congresses. The main problem is that too many Christians do not trust the Moslems to remain at peace and curb violence against Christians in the south. While Moslems are the majority in some parts of the south (mainly the southwest that will become Bangsamoro) Christians are the majority in the southern islands that radical Moslems insist should be under Moslem control and all Christians expelled. Even in Bangsamoro Christians are a large minority. As an alternative the government recently proposed that the entire country be given the same option by creating a more federal form of government with the country organized into five entities with Bangsamoro being one of them. This means no appearance of special treatment for Moslems. This five region proposal did not generate a lot of support while the BBL did.
So far in 2018 NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) has lost about twenty fighters during clashes with security forces and about ten times as many to members surrendering. When you have this many surrenders there are usually even larger losses from desertion (usually by recent recruits who have no police record of their NPA activities) and fewer recruits. The NPA leadership is still unable to exercise control over the entire organization, which is now coming apart.
The government gave up on peace negotiations with the NPA in mid-2017. NPA negotiators were warned that the peace talks (resumed earlier in 2017) would be abandoned if some progress was not made. The government kept the negotiations with the NPA going in 2017 despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. Since February 2017 the army and police were ordered to exert maximum pressure on the NPA and that apparently worked because the operations concentrated on the NPA factions known to be hostile to a peace deal. This was important because in January 2017 negotiators realized that there were too many NPA factions that refused to make peace and that problem remained unsolved. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will continue its efforts to destroy the NPA completely. Both the government and the NPA leadership are trying, in different ways, to deal with the uncooperative NPA factions and that is enough to maintain the option to resume negotiations. But at the moment the government appears to have had enough of NPA instability and irrational behavior. For example, some senior NPA leaders still insist the NPA still has a chance of overthrowing democracy and replacing it with a communist dictatorship. Since August 2017 (after the Marawi City battle ended) the security forces have turned much of their attention to the NPA and that has crippled the leftist rebels. The factions remaining are operating like bandits now and being treated as such in areas where they are still active.
Since the police resumed their anti-drug campaign in early December some 6,300 arrests have been made in 4,000 separate operations. There was some resistance and 53 suspects died in gun battles with the police. Most of these deaths were in “buy/bust” operations where the dealers fought back rather than surrender. That puts the total deaths at just over 4,000 since the operation first began in mid-2016. The anti-drug campaign is still popular inside the Philippines.
February 14, 2018: In the north (outside Manila) police found and arrested the head of the NPA.
The government banned all foreign research ships from the Philippines Rise area off its east coast. This comes after it was revealed that Chinese “Ocean Minerals Association” had been exploring the area in detail rather than just Chinese government Hydrographic research vessels.
February 13, 2018: In the south (Basilan province) three Abu Sayyaf gunmen surrendered, along with their weapons. This makes nearly 200 Abu Sayyaf who have surrendered since early 2017.
Britain announced that one of its warships, after a visit to Australia next week, will perform a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the South China Sea. In January China protested a U.S. Navy FONOP near Scarborough Shoal as they now consider this area part of China and since 2012 have posted warships (coastguard or navy) to enforce their claim. In 2017 China built 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) 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. Chinese media report these FONOPs as a violation of international law and most now trigger a response by Chinese warships or warplanes. In reality China rarely opposes the American warships. These exercises are meant to affirm that many of the Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea are invalid and that the right to free passage through China’s EEZ is assured.
February 12, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) seven NPA gunmen surrendered, along with their weapons.
February 11, 2018: In the south (Sulu) marines encountered about 30 Abu Sayyaf gunmen and after a brief gun battle the Abu Sayyaf group fled. The Islamic terrorists lost five dead and at least four wounded while one marine was wounded. The marines pursued the fleeing Abu Sayyaf and hoped that this group might have some of the remaining kidnap victims the Islamic terror group is holding. It was a tip indicating that which brought the marines into this area over the weekend.
In the north (Arba province) soldiers encountered ten NPA rebels who had been looting and extorting food and other goods from local civilians. After a brief clash (in which one rebel was killed) the NPA men fled and the soldiers pursued.
February 10, 2018: In the north (Manila) a large group of demonstrators assembled outside the Chinese consulate to protest the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and the construction of artificial islands that serve mainly as military bases. While the current Filipino government is willing to work out a deal with China, rather than prepare for a war the Philippines could not win, many Filipinos are angry at the Chinese aggression and seizure of Filipino territory.
February 9, 2018: The Canadian government is under pressure to prevent a Canadian firm from selling sixteen Bell 412 helicopters to the Philippines (for $15 million each) because they might be used for police or paramilitary operations the some Canadians disagree with. Canadian firms have been a major supplier of refurbished and new helicopters of this type to the Philippines in the past. The Canadian government is unlikely to block this sale, as it would mean the Philippines would turn to Russia or China for helicopters and a major Canadian exporter would lose a lot of business and credibility. Many Western nations are openly opposed to the Filipino anti-drug campaign and are pressuring the UN to order a war crimes investigation of the Filipino president responsible. That is not getting a lot of support in the UN where most nations support the Filipino effort.
February 8, 2018: In the south (Lanao del Norte province) soldiers, during a routine patrol. Encountered and killed three Islamic terrorists belonging to the Maute Group. One of the dead was one of the few Maute Group leaders still operating, a man with a $60,000 price on his head. The army has been patrolling the south (Mindanao) since late 2017 seeking remnants of the Maute Group and BIFF.
February 6, 2018: The Philippines changed its policy on allowing foreign research vessels to study the Benham Rise, 250 kilometers off the east coast of the Philippines. In 2012 the UN agreed that the resource rich Benham Rise was indeed part of the Philippines coastal waters and the name was then changed to the Philippines Rise. This is basically an underwater volcano that did not turn into an island. It is a large (250 kilometers square) plateau that is in an area where most of the water is 5,000 meters deep. But the rise is mostly 3,000 meters high and a “peak” rises out of that plateau and reaches to within 50 meters of the surface. The rise is a rich fishing area but also may have underwater oil and gas deposits. China has never made a claim on the Benham/Philippines Rise but that could change if the payoff were large enough. China had asked permission to send a research ship to study the area and at first the Philippines agreed. But the public reaction was hostile to that, given the Chinese aggression off the west coast in the South China Sea. So the Philippines withdrew that permission and banned any foreign research vessels from studying the Philippines Rise unless they received specific permission. Foreign fishing vessels are banned from the Philippines Rise as well.
At the same time the Philippines repeated that war was not an option in the South China Sea where the Chinese have declared the area an integral part of China and is trying to force foreign ships, especially warships, to ask permission before passing through what had always been considered international waters. Meanwhile China continues to dredge up sand at reefs and created artificial islands which are turned into military bases. China says the new artificial islands will have commercial uses (tourism, recreation).
The U.S. compiled and recently released a report on Chinese activities in the South China Sea during 2017. The numerous detailed aerial and satellite photos showed that that China had continued to expand its artificial islands and installed numerous military facilities on six of these islands. China had promised the Philippines it would not expand these islands and that played a role in the Philippines backing off on its resistance to the Chinese territorial claims. But now China is openly discussing its plans to expand its military presence in the South China Sea and proudly displaying progress on state controlled media. This includes plans to install more sensors throughout the South China Sea and put ten surveillance satellites into orbit so that the South China Sea is covered 24/7.
In late 2017 China appeared to have succeeded in buying cooperation from the Philippines. The Filipino government was willing to accept all the legal gifts (aid, investment, loans) China offered 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 the Americans 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. Effective Filipino resistance to these Chinese plans is not considered a possibility. The Chinese see the Philippines as neutralized and many Filipinos are not happy with that.
February 4, 2018: The government reports it is seizing more and more shipments of illegal drugs Chinese drug gangs are smuggling into the Philippines. China remains the main source of methamphetamine pills (shabu) smuggled into the country. Some shabu is manufactured locally and Mexican drug cartels are delivering more of it to Filipino customers via the mail.
January 19, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released two Indonesian fishermen they had help captive for over a year.
January 18, 2018: China criticized the United States and cautioned the Philippines because yesterday an American destroyer (USS Hopper) carried out a FONOP in the South China Sea near Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines.