The NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) is taking heavy losses but is still not willing (or unified enough) to negotiate a peace deal. So far this year the security forces have taken over 200 firearms and nearly as many bombs from the NPA. More importantly over 2,300 NPA members and supporters have been captured or surrendered. These former leftist rebels report that morale is poor throughout the organization and that the only factions likely to continue operating are those that have basically become gangsters whose members don’t care what their political label is as long as they are making money. When you have this many surrenders there are usually even larger losses from desertion (by recent recruits who have no police record of their NPA activities and can easily just walk away) and fewer recruits. The NPA leadership is still unable to exercise control over the entire organization, which is now coming apart.
The government suspended 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.
The government has been less successful dealing with the endemic corruption. This is the enemy within that is really the root cause of most political and economic problems the Philippines suffers from. The 2017 international corruption ratings show the world that the Philippines is not making much progress and is stuck near the bottom (111 out of 180 nations compared with 101 out of 176 nations in 2016) of international standings. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (
usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9
) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. In Southeast Asia the Philippines has the most problems with corruption.
The current Philippines score is 34 (versus 35 in 2016) compared to 63 (61) for Taiwan, 40 (40) for India, 29 (29) for Russia, 54 (53) for South Korea, 17 (12) for North Korea, 35 (33) for Vietnam, 84 (84) for Singapore, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia, 77 (79) for Australia, 38 (36) for Sri Lanka, 33 (36) for the Maldives, 41 (40) for China, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (26) for Bangladesh, 30 (29) for Iran, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 30 (28) for Burma, 2 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 43 (45) for South Africa, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. The Philippines corruption score has not changed much since 2012, when it was also 34. It went as high as 38 in 2014.
Many Filipinos see corruption as a weakness that the Chinese are quietly seeking to exploit. For example a Chinese credit rating agency recently gave the Philippines an excellent (AAA) rating. This got different reactions in the Philippines. Some saw it as an accurate assessment of how things were going. The rating agency noted that tax and other reforms were underway and that GDP growth was expected to stay strong (at 6.8 percent) even though the Filipino government was seeking something between seven and eight percent. This upbeat assessment made it possible for China to approve new loans to the Philippines. That made a lot of Filipinos uneasy. That’s because China is increasingly using its large foreign investments as weapons. Case in point is the tactic of loaning poor countries large amounts of money for huge development projects (like ports, roads and railroads). The loans are on terms that look attractive but eventually much be repaid. When the debtor nation runs into trouble making payments China offers to reduce the load in return for control (if not majority ownership) of the ports, railroad, airport or whatever. With control of these facilities China can probably run them more efficiently, and profitably. But control means it is easier for China to use the facility for military or espionage purposes. This is called DTD (Debt Trap Diplomacy) and has been a favorite Chinese tactic for over a thousand years by virtue of China having been, until a few centuries ago, the wealthiest empire on the planet. Nations currently vulnerable (they have large Chinese debts) to DTD are Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, Venezuela and Tajikistan. Most nations are aware of the DTD trap but where there is a lot of corruption China can create a DTD situation anyway. Some of these DTD efforts go bad and cost China a lot of money, but on average DTD is a net gain for China as it gains military, economic and diplomatic advantages without having to fight.
March 14, 2018: President Duterte announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC (International Criminal Court), a process that takes a year to become final. This is in response to UN members persuading the ICC to investigate the Philippines for its war on drugs and what some UN members are calling crimes against humanity. Filipino critics of the war on drugs back the continued ICC investigation and possible prosecution of senior government officials, including Duterte. Since the war on drugs began in mid-2016 some 4,100 drug trade operatives have been killed according to official police count. ICC supporters insist the true death toll is three times that. That is because during the same period police reported another 16,000 homicides with possible drug connections. At the same time there have been nearly 120,000 drug related arrests and 1.3 million people have voluntarily surrendered. Many suspected leaders of drug gangs have been arrested and then released because of “insufficient evidence” (plus lots of lawyers and possibly bribes). Meanwhile the majority of Filipinos support the war on drugs and have from the beginning. It is unclear if the ICC is going after any of those supporters as well.
March 13, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) soldiers clashed with about thirty Abu Sayyaf gunmen. Five of the Islamic terrorists were killed and six soldiers wounded before the Abu Sayyaf men managed to flee, carrying several wounded with them. The soldiers could have killed or wounded more of the Abu Sayyaf but the troops were seeking kidnap victims still held by the group and these are usually escorted by a lot of armed men when they are moved around. Abu Sayyaf has not been able to kidnap many people lately and only has a few hostages they are still trying to get a ransom for. Thus the troops were particularly careful in how (and how much) firepower they used.
The U.S. delivered six ScanEagle UAVs to the Philippines where the air force will use them for surveillance of areas where Islamic terrorists or leftist rebels are active. These UAVs can also be used for maritime patrol (several navies use ScanEagle on ships for surveillance at sea). The Americans had success with ScanEagle in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and still use it.
March 12, 2018: France and the Philippines agreed to cooperate in dealing with Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
March 11, 2018: Police arrested two members of Abu Sayyaf who were wanted to participation in a 2002 attack that involved a number of Americans being kidnapped.
March 10, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) marines, responding to calls for help from locals, found and killed an Abu Sayyaf member who was in possession of ammo and equipment used by the Islamic terror group.
March 8, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops encountered fifty BIFF gunmen and during three days of fighting at least 44 of the Islamic terrorists were killed. Several soldiers were wounded. Several thousand civilians in the area temporarily fled to avoid all the fighting.
March 7, 2018: In the north (Bulacan province) a wanted NPA leader was confronted and killed in a gun battle. Police were responding to a tip.
March 4, 2018: The army revealed that they believe they know who the new leader of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Southeast Asia is. Not surprisingly it is Abu Dar, a well-known associate of the former leader; Isnilon Hapilon, who died in mid-October as he was trying to get out of the besieged city of Marawi. While Abu Dar is much younger than Hapilon he is less radical and more careful. Which is probably why he was entrusted with many financial matters. Since late 2017 the army has been trying to determine if Abu Dar was really still alive and actually head of the local Islamic terrorists.
Abu Dar survived horrific Islamic terrorist losses in the May-October 2017 battle for Marawi City. In December 2017 the army confirmed that all seven Maute brothers are dead. These men were the core leadership of the Maute Group. This was a radical MILF faction that opposed the peace treaty MILF negotiated and considers itself part of ISIL. 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 the Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and eventually ISIL. The Marawi City 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 men who showed up. MILF refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. By October the battle was over and 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 although all seven of the Maute brothers were now dead one other key Maute Group leader, Abu Dar, was still free. Abu Dar belongs to the same tribe (the Maranao) as the Maute clan and was considered the most likely one to take command of the Maute Group and rebuild it. To that end the army believed Abu Dar has been spending most of his time in his native Lanao del Sur province, the same province where Marawi City is.
February 28, 2018: In the south, across the Sulu Sea in nearby Malaysia (Sabah) local police encountered, pursued and killed a wanted (in the Philippines and Malaysia) Abu Sayyaf leader (Nurhassan Jamiri) and two of his followers.
February 23, 2018: The Philippines and China are negotiating a compromise that will enable Chinese firms to explore for oil in off shore waters that international law (and a recent decision by an international court) recognize as Filipino. China disagrees but is willing to work out a compromise as long as only Chinese firms do the exploration and then operation of any oil production facilities needed. While China considers its growing number of South China Sea islands demilitarized that is not entirely true and Chinese generals are openly calling for permission to “officially” install anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems on the islands. This would trigger more confrontations with other nations that have large navies and also depend on unimpeded access to the South China Sea for their overseas trade. While the Philippines cannot handle Chinese aggression in the South China Sea alone a coalition of major naval powers could and that is where this is headed and what China wants to avoid.
February 22, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) marines, acting on a tip, arrested an Abu Sayyaf man who was living in a village where guarded a hidden weapons cache of eight assault rifles, ammo and other military equipment.
February 18, 2018: In the south (Agusan del Sur) an army patrol encountered ten NPA gunmen and after a brief gun battle two of the rebels were dead and the rest fled. The NPA men also left behind three AK-47s and quantities of ammo, explosives and other equipment. Two days earlier troops had killed another NPA man from this NPA faction (“Guerrilla Front Committee 14”). Elsewhere in the south (Zamboanga del Sur province) an army patrol clashed with a group of NPA gunmen. This left one soldier and one rebels dead.