China isn’t the only communist threat the Philippines has to deal with. The NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) depends on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk. The government is trying, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, are split on a peace agreement and most are continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival of the organization. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Those actions begin to suffer from desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on where NPA camps or weapons storage sites are considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal more difficult. Meanwhile, the NPA has become a major source of criminal (as opposed to Islamic terrorist) activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines.
A Win For China
The government is negotiating a treaty that will allow China to share, with the Philippines oil and natural gas revenue from portions of the South China Sea where China claims control of areas that are Filipino according to current international agreements. This deal is unpopular with a lot of Filipinos as well as with neighboring countries also being pressured by China. Malaysian leaders warn that Chinese offers of massive investments come with too many strings and have proved to be more about enriching China and not the country receiving these investments. Any agreement with China on who gets what in Filipino parts of the South China Sea will have to be approved by the Filipino legislature and that is where the Chinese will probably encounter the most opposition.
Chinese claims on Filipino territory are asserted relatively discreetly but relentlessly and many Filipinos are persuaded to submit rather than fight. At the same time, a growing number of prominent Filipinos have become more outspoken in their protests and warnings of the damage Chinese domination could inflict. This now occasionally includes the generally pro-China Filipino president. This wavering caused a public rebuke from China and that enraged even more Filipinos. At the same time China keeps offering economic deals that seem favorable, but in fact, give China more access to Filipino assets or territory in return for not much. In the South China Sea China is slowly asserting its possession over traditionally Filipino areas. China does this by building bases on artificial islands (by dredging up sand). China offers the Philippines a seemingly attractive joint exploration deals to look for oil, gas and other resources in offshore areas where, by international law, Filipinos should be in charge. Yet China acts like it is already a partner and has the military power to back that up. China offers small gifts (usually of military equipment) and promises of large investments (that often do not appear) and makes loud protests at anything it objects to; like Filipinos displaying banners saying; "Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China." Displaying such banners is legal in the Philippines but not in China. This is the point for Filipinos that Chinese officials don’t quite comprehend.
Many nations in the region blame the United States for the Filipino inability to deal with the Chinese aggression. The United States has always been considered a reliable and powerful ally of the Philippines. But that support began to fade in the 1990s. For nearly a decade, until 2017, the United States refused to pressure China to back off on its claims, even though a UN backed tribunal ruled that China had violated international law and a treaty China itself had signed, by seizing Filipino maritime territory. China ignored that ruling (“set it aside”) and continued to build new bases (seven so far) and coerce other nations to recognize these claims. Now the United States is challenging the Chinese claims but so far China is ignoring those challenges (American warships and aircraft passing through waters and airspace China insists is now part of China.) Because of the more forceful attitude by the Americans (and British, Australians and others) Filipinos are unsure which is best; resist or submit. Either way, China is going to hurt the Philippines. If there is resistance China will seek to impose economic damage. If there is submission the Philippines loses valuable territory forever.
President Duterte approved the long-awaited BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) in late July. By doing this he kept a promise to do so if the Moslem separatist organizations MILF and MNLF cooperated in eliminating ISIL activity in the Moslem south. The elimination is still a work in progress but major progress was made in 2017. Earlier this year Congress agreed that it was now willing to pass the controversial BOL in 2018 and after two weeks of frantic activity during early July the BOL got congressional approval and was ready for the president to sign. 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.
BOL 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. 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 areas in the southwest that will become Bangsamoro) Christians are the majority in the southern islands that radical Moslems insist should be under Moslem control with all Christians expelled. Even in Bangsamoro Christians are a large minority. Bangsamoro includes Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur, as well as portions of Lanao del Norte and Cotabato provinces. These areas must reaffirm their willingness to belong to Bangsamoro by voting on it. It will take until to 2022 to get that done. At that point over 30,000 armed members of Moslem militias (mainly MILF and MNLF) will have been disarmed or incorporated into government sponsored local defense groups. Ideally, by 2022 BIFF and Abu Sayyaf will be destroyed or reduced to a few diehards.
BIFF Battered But Not Yet Beaten
BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) has survived a three month effort to eliminate their presence in Mindanao (where most BIFF members are). Over a hundred BIFF men were known dead and it is not yet known how many died of wounds or deserted. The army has found several BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and have set no end date on the current campaign. The 6th Infantry Division, which is supplying most of the troops, can rotate units in and out of the area for months. The object is to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicate that this is a possibility. But the reality is the BIFF are hardcore and consider themselves a branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). BIFF has become a magnet for many Filipino Moslems who are unhappy with the Bangsamoro agreement and believe it does not go far enough (ISIL believes that all Filipinos should be Moslems).
September 11, 2018: President Duterte justified his arrest of a senator last week by revealing that the government had received information from a “friendly country” detailing a coup being planned by Communist Party, opposition politicians and former members of the military. There have been a lot of coups and coup attempts since the Philippines became a nation in 1945, so this revelation had some heft to it.
September 10, 2018: Police have identified 18 suspects in the July 31 incident sown south (in Basilan) where ISIL took credit for a vehicle suicide bombing at an army checkpoint that left 11 dead including six soldiers and four civilians. Suicide bombing are rare in the Philippines and a survivor of this attack noted that the driver of the van with the bomb appeared to have a foreign accent. Police have arrested eight of the 18 suspects so far.
September 8, 2018: President Duterte’s approval rating has declined again, to 57 percent. It was 79 percent when he took office two years ago. While Duterte has been more popular than his predecessors he has made some unpopular decisions. That includes a willingness to do business with China when it appeared the Philippines had no way of resisting military threats. Then there was the “war on drugs” which was generally popular but offended many foreigners and eventually some Filipinos as well. Duterte was also criticized for getting the BOL deal done. Duterte believes this has been key to reducing Islamic terrorist activity, which has happened. Duterte is also grinding away at corruption, especially crooked police and government officials. This is making Duterte a lot of enemies in the government.
September 7, 2018: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) soldiers killed three members of BIFF, who were firing on nearby civilians (and had already killed one).
September 5, 2018: In the south (Cebu Province) a town mayor with links to drug gangs was shot dead by four gunmen who disarmed two guards and then killed the mayor who was asleep in his office (which was considered safer than sleeping at home.) There was not enough evidence to prosecute this mayor but enough to remove any authority he had over local police. It was unclear who the killers were. They could have represented political rivals, drug gangs or rogue police. In many parts of the country being a small town mayor is a dangerous job.
September 3, 2018: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) a bomb went off near a Coast Guard base, destroying one small boat and damaging another. The explosion was in a small motorboat seen a hundred meters from the base. NPA took credit for this attack, which was meant to get closer and destroy several of the small boats the army and coast guard used to search for NPA activity.
September 2, 2018: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) a bomb went off in an Internet café, killing two and wounding 15. This was the latest of several BIFF attacks in the area and the National Police immediately fired three senior police commanders responsible for Sultan Kudarat province for failing to shut down BIFF violence in the area. After today the army and police became even more active in seeking out BIFF members and doing what they can to prevent any more attacks.
In the south (Maguindanao province) BIFF kidnapped two farmers from a remote village, apparently in an effort to coerce cooperation from locals.
In the north (Aurora province) two NPA rebels were killed during a clash with soldiers.
In the south (Cebu Province) the entire police force (69 personnel) were relieved of duty for involvement in the drug trade. Eight are being prosecuted and the rest transferred with some still under investigation.
September 1, 2018: President Duterte canceled the peace talks with the NPA because they were going nowhere and the NPA continued to operate as gangsters in a few provinces by extorting or attempting to extort money from local businesses. Duterte also wants the talks moved from Norway (many NPA leaders live in Europe as refugees) to the Philippines.
August 29, 2018: In the south (off Palawan Island) a Filipino frigate ran aground at Hasa-Hasa shoal in the West Philippine Sea. The ship did not suffer serious damage was free by the 31st. China claims this area as part of the South China Sea but did not interfere in this situation and praised itself for that.
August 28, 2018: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) a bomb went off at a street festival killing two and wounding 37.
August 20, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) seven BIFF Islamic terrorists were killed when the army, acting on tips from locals, located the remote BIFF base and hit it with artillery fire. This base was used for building bombs and was destroyed.
August 18, 2018: In the south (Basilan) two Abu Sayyaf men were arrested when they encounter an army patrol.
August 15, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) a senior Abu Sayyaf leader was killed during a clash with an army patrol. Elsewhere in Sulu an Abu Sayyaf commander and four of his followers (one of them a known bomb builder) surrendered and applied for amnesty. That makes 81 Abu Sayyaf men who have accepted amnesty so far this year. Those who get amnesty also provide useful information on Abu Sayyaf operations and that led to the recent discovery that Abu Sayyaf leaders were trying to organize a major kidnapping and bombing campaign but were hampered by losses from military operations and members leaving and accepting amnesty.
In the central Philippines (Antique province) seven NPA rebels were killed when they attacked police who had come to arrest some of them. The location was an NPA hideout and weapons, equipment and documents were seized. Information gathered from all this showed this group was planning a raid on a local police station.
August 14, 2018: In the south (North Cotabato province) BIFF ambushed several civilians and killed two members of a local defense militia and wounded another. An unarmed woman was also killed. Troops encountered another group of Abu Sayyaf in the area but that one got away.
August 10, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) six BIFF gunmen were killed when they attacked some soldiers dismantling a BIFF roadside bomb. Three BIFF men were wounded as well as six soldiers.